Thursday, March 31, 2011

Flannery O’Connor on the Banning of Books in High Schools

A very interesting article about the type of books that should be chosen for high school students and why this is so. I have to say that I agree with the perspective presented in this piece.

The real problem, she says, is not that the schools are assigning "dirty" books, but that they are assigning a preponderance of modern books, and that there seems to be no clear purpose behind the teaching of literature in most middle and high schools other than to try to capture the "interest" of the adolescent mind. This principle – the idea that it is the school's duty to excite or gratify the unformed tastes of teenagers – she calls "the devil of Educationism…the kind that can be cast out only by prayer and fasting," and she notes with bemusement that mid-20th century America seems to be "the first age in history which has asked the child what he would tolerate learning."

Great literature has always portrayed characters fornicating and killing. What has changed is that the way the modern writer portrays such acts in literature, even a devout Catholic modern with an intense moral sense like O'Connor (she would insist: ESPECIALLY a devout Catholic modern with an intense moral sense), is graphic, explicit, a kind of total immersion in dirty deeds. Such modern writing is strong stuff; it is not to everyone's liking, and sometimes it can be a little TOO much to the liking of the 15-year old mind, and for the wrong reasons. But this kind of literary technique is not ipso facto "immoral" writing, and it may be very suitable for the reader who has the moral and the literary experience to understand and appreciate it.

And of course, generally speaking 15 year olds simply don't have the literary experience to understand this sort of thing.

To make modern/contemporary literature the predominant or sole business of the high school English class is to commit the serious error of putting second things first; it is to deny students sight of the literary works of the past which are the only things that can help them to intelligently judge the works of the present.

I often work with English teachers to help them prepare booklists for their students. Predominantly, they assign modern young adult fiction, much of which is rife with violence, sex and bad behaviour. There is usually one class per semester that is required to read "Classics" such as Huckleberry Finn, War of the Worlds, Pride and Prejudice and "The Scarlet Letter". Since I personally have read many of these classics I try to steer students to the ones that I feel will be engaging.But I often wonder just how many students actually read the books.

I have to say that my own high school education 30 years ago was somewhat similar, although regular English classes did read the classics. When I arrived at a new school in Gr 9, I was bumped into the Advanced English class. In this class we studied modern novels such as "I never promised you a rose garden" and "Black like me". When I reentered the regular English stream in Gr 11 (Advanced was only for 2 grades) my writing and reading had deteriorated greatly. It was a mistake for me to have strayed away from the classics and in some ways my writing never recovered.

As a young adult I set about to read all the classics I could get my hands on - Moby Dick, numerous Charles Dickens novels, Ivanhoe (the most boring book in the world), The Three Musketeers, War and Peace, The Count of Monte Cristo (once on the banned book list for Catholics!) and many many others. Interestingly, at this time I couldn't read Pride and Prejudice nor any other of Jane Austen's fine works. They were too wordy and simply incomprehensible. Happily, that changed a few years later.

I wish I could get back to reading more of the classics. There are so many yet untouched - many Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope and Dostoyevsky. Perhaps this year I will try to read more of these classics. I feel like I've been sucked into the YA vortex.

You can read the full article here:

Flannery O’Connor on the Banning of Books in High Schools

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