The article in question is this one, "Ripped Books" by high school English teacher Nancy Schnog. The link probably requires registration, but the gist of it is, Schnog thinks students don't read because high schools are teaching the wrong books, and teaching them the wrong way.
"Butchering." That's what one of my former students, a young man who loves creative writing but rarely gets to do any at school, called English class. He was referring to the endless picking apart of linguistic details that loses teens in a haze of "So what?" The reading quizzes that turn, say, "Hamlet" into a Q&A on facts, symbols and themes. The thesis-driven essay assignments that require students to write about a novel they can't muster any passion for ("The Scarlet Letter" is high on teens' list of most dreaded). I'll never forget what one parent, bemoaning his daughter's aversion to great books after she took AP English Literature, wrote to me: "What I've seen teachers do is take living, breathing works of art and transform them into dessicated lab specimens fit for dissection."
OK. I can kinda-sorta see Schnog's point. One correspondent, a high school senior, writes in to the online discussion about the article with a description of an all-too-typical high school English assignment: We are never given a reason Why? We are given highlighers and copies of text, told to find at least three metaphors and five similes along with the juxtaposition of this work and another. Fair enough: this is bad teaching, at least if the activity never goes anywhere. And I have to admit I've always been puzzled about why The Scarlet Letter, of all books, is standard high school fare: just how much does the average teenager know about adultery and guilt and vengeance and Puritanism?
Thus far, I'm with Schnog. I'm all for opening up the canon; I'd like to see high schools teach more contemporary lit, more science fiction, more books by nonwhite authors, and (my pet hobbyhorse) more books with happy endings. And I agree with her that some of the classics can wait, because there are books and authors students have to grow into. Dickens was mine. I remember reading Great Expectations in ninth grade and hating it. A year later, when we got to A Tale of Two Cities, something clicked. I remember exactly when it clicked, about a quarter of the way through the book:
'The old Sydney Carton of Shrewsbury School,' said Stryver, nodding his head over him as he reviewed him in the present and the past, 'the old seesaw Sydney. Up one minute and down the next; now in spirits and now in despondency!'
'Ah!' returned the other, sighing: 'yes! The same Sydney, with the same luck. Even then, I did exercises with other boys, and seldom did my own.'
'And why not?'
'God knows. It was my way, I suppose.'
And my tenth-grade self totally got this, because my tenth-grade self was not a good student, and blew off assignments that she was quite capable of doing, and let the kid sitting next to her in Algebra cheat off of her tests without really knowing why she was letting him do it. All of which seems to bear out Schnog's thesis: that students are more engaged, and learn more, when they can see at least a little of themselves in the books they're reading.
But. Butbutbutbutbut. Schnog starts to lose me when she assumes that teachers can necessarily predict which books are going to speak to high school students, and when and how and why this will happen, and in particular, when she makes some blanket assumptions about gender.
It's hard to forget my son's summer-reading assignment the year before he entered ninth grade: Julia Alvarez's "How the García Girls Lost Their Accents." Try as he did, he never got beyond the first of 15 vignettes about four culturally displaced sisters who search for identity through therapists and mental illness, men and sex, drugs and alcohol. I could hardly blame him. We ask 14-year-old boys to read novels about the travails of anguished women and want them to develop a love of reading?
IIRC, this isn't a totally accurate characterization of Alvarez's novel, since the characters are children or teenagers for large chunks of the book. And I think Schnog is being a little inconsistent here; whatever one thinks of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, it clearly isn't one of the "classics" Schnog rails about elsewhere in the article. Whoever chose this particular summer-reading assignment was trying to do precisely what Schnog suggests that teachers should do -- add more contemporary lit and more multicultural voices to the curriculum. But one problem with this contemporary novel, evidently, is that it is about girls. Schnog admits as much in the online chat: I am ambivalent about assigning "girl-oriented" stories to young male teens: Why? Because in the main, they don't like them.
Cringe. Let's assume, for the moment, that she's correct. Wouldn't the next logical step to be to ask why they don't like them, and whether there's anything we can do about it, rather than assuming that this is an immutable state of affairs? And what about young female teens -- do they have the choice of a) attending an all-girls school or b) spending four years reading only books with male authors and protagonists (because everyone knows that's all the boys will read, and girls will read anything, so their wishes and perspectives are of secondary importance)?
Actually, come to think of it, that was pretty much all we read when I was in high school. And I didn't really feel the absence of female voices at the time; by eleventh grade I'd pretty much worked out that I liked English, and I was fine with a steady diet of The Great Gatsby and Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Hamlet and Greek tragedy. I enjoyed all of those books, even if I did get a C on an AP English essay for arguing that Clytemnestra was the most sympathetic character in the Oresteia. Which might, again, seem to prove Schnog's thesis...
All the same, I think a reading list like that does skew both boys' and girls' ideas about what counts as literature and, more broadly, whose voices and perspectives are worth hearing. I'm pretty sure the skewedness was accidental on my eleventh- and twelfth-grade teachers' part; both men were wonderful teachers, alert and sensitive to both texts and students. But I find it unconscionable that someone would deliberately argue that we shouldn't be teaching "girl-oriented" stories to teenaged boys, knowing that in a typical, mixed-sex public school classroom, that means we won't be teaching them to anybody.
Whew, that was a lot of very inconclusive blather. I have no high school teaching experience, and no very good solutions to the problem Schnog is trying to address: how do you keep students from becoming disaffected with the whole idea of studying literature? But I do have one insight from my own experience as a formerly disaffected student: The books don't matter nearly as much as the teachers do. I stopped hating English about midway through tenth grade. This didn't happen when it dawned on me that Sydney Carton kind of interesting (because I'd been interested in lots of books without necessarily liking the class in which they were assigned), but when my sharp-tongued, not terribly charismatic teacher somehow managed to convey to me that she liked books, respected books, and also got a lot of pleasure out of thinking and talking about how books worked. This was something of a revelation to me, because my ninth-grade English teacher, who was very funny and popular with most of her students, had not liked books, and let her disdain show.
And so I find myself wondering whether Schnog lets her disdain for The Scarlet Letter, and her love for The Great Gatsby, show, and whether this is why her students react so differently to these two novels -- both of which take place in worlds far removed from a twenty-first-century teenager's experience. And I wonder, also, whether there are enough high school teachers with a passion both for books and for the pleasures of analysis to go around, and how we can entice more of them into the schools.