Monday, June 25, 2012

Some Opinions Are More Foolish Than Others

Has anyone caught this opinion piece in yesterday's NY Times Sunday Review section, "Some Books Are More Equal Than Others?"  You should.  In it, Claire Needell Hollander, a middle-school English teacher, espouses the view that for their summer reading projects, high school students should be selecting books such as John Hersey's "Hiroshima" and Elie Wiesel's "Night" (both describing epic levels of mass horror and devastation);  "Fast Food Nation" (by Eric Schlosser) and "The Omnivore's Dilemma" (by Michael Pollan) (both discussing the impact of our collective food choices on our cultural and agricultural environments);  "Girls Like Us," by Rachel Lloyd, about the exploitation of teenage girls in the sex trade; and "Behind the Beautiful Forevers," by Katherine Boo, about the squalor and degradation endured by slum dwellers in India.  Evidently, it is only by reading such works of nonfiction that students can be "provoke[d]... to desire an expanded world knowledge, to consider the flawed moral decision making of the past and the imperiled morality of the future."
     Fiction, evidently, is incapable of serving this purpose, in Hollander's less-than-humble opinion.  Take, for example, that notorious piece of crap, "To Kill A Mockingbird."  If we parents liked it so much, Hollander advises us to reread it ourselves, rather than attempting to foist it on our children.  The problem with this novel, you see, is that "the real horrors ... happen offstage, to characters who remain peripheral to the narrative."
     Oh. I get it.  Teenagers lack the ability to "consider the flawed moral decision making of the past" unless they are reading cold, hard, documentable facts.  They cannot extrapolate a sense of a time, or a place, or a social injustice endemic to that time and place, or even a universal human failing, from a work of fiction.  Perhaps they might be able to, Hollander seems to grudgingly concede, if the horrors are presented in full frontal view of the reader; otherwise, your kid might as well be reading a comic book.
     I feel tremendous sympathy for those students who attend Ms. Hollander's "public middle school in Manhattan."  Much of what I knew about life through my school years was learned through reading fiction, because the best fiction that I read was true in all but the literal sense of the word.  That, Ms. Hollander, is called "art."  And I would no sooner see my daughter deprived of the art of the written word for a summer than I would see her deprived of all her social contacts.
     Kids should read high-quality nonfiction, if they find it meaningful.  And even if they do, they should read high-quality fiction too.  "Perhaps your children need to confront some hard truths this summer that will make it easier for them to want to learn about the world," concludes Hollander.  Yes, and perhaps if you believe that the only way to accomplish that is to try to force the kinds of facts down their throats that most adults try to desperately avoid knowing, they'll stop reading altogether.
     My son is starting law school this fall.  He wrote his application essay on "To Kill A Mockingbird," and that was when I learned that he'd kept a copy of that book in his desk all through college.  Adults learn in different ways, Ms. Hollander, and so do kids.  I'd advise you to let them.

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