Now, a blogger by the name of Martin has been posting about the issue. His first post on Monday was titled The Banning of Academic Rigor: Anti-censorship groups now calling enforcement of curriculum standards "censorship", in which he argued that "popular teen books" have should not be given the same academic consideration as canonized classics such as Dostoyevsky, Conrad, James, and Steinbeck because they discuss "petty" things such as high school dating, zits, puberty, and crushes. His next related post, Do you have to have read a book to say anything about it at all? More on the Montgomery County "censorship" case, further stresses the fact that students in college prep courses should not waste their time with teen literature, focusing instead on the classics for collegiate preparation, and that students who require modern, popular, or teen literature to be engaged in class do not belong in a college prep class in the first place. His running argument is that classics have withstood the test of time and have been given the thumbs-up from millions of people over decades; why should we even bother with books whose literary presence may be virtually nonexistent in five years?
I read blog posts like Martin's because I like to see where both sides of the debate are coming from before presenting my own arguments. It's important to surround yourself with people who share your opinions, beliefs, and values, but it is just as important to open yourself up to the incendiary feelings and indignation caused by hearing the other side. Too often I read or hear heated comments made in the moment by offended debators who have not stopped to seriously consider the other side's argument, and who construct their own comments in ways that lend no support or credibility to their own side. The best debators succeed because they know their opponent almost as well as they do themselves, which is why I urge you all to read as much as you can about both sides of this argument, to fully see what part you may play in the debate. Those who believe that YA books do not belong in the classroom are not our "enemies:" our job is not to talk trash about them or yell at them. Our goal is to promote open-mindedness and an acknowledgement that our side is as equally justified as theirs. Closed minds, not groups or individuals with opposing beliefs, are our "enemy," and that goes for both sides of the debate.
Educator E. D. Hirsch, author of the What Your # Grader Needs to Know series, believes that everyone should be given a solid foundation of common knowledge to draw from, and I agree to an extent. Where would we (and by "we" I mean Americans in this instance) be if we did not all understand the conception and evolution of the Constitution? if people did not know for what reason the Civil War was fought? if no one had at least a basic knowledge of Shakespeare and what he wrote? if the times tables, addition, subtraction, and how to calculate interest were not essential knowledge?
It is along those lines that we do have a literary canon, a list of essential works that we encourage all students to have some information on. It would be nice if everyone got to read all of those books, but, like Martin said, one does not necessarily have to read the book in its entirety to grasp its meaning. I highly doubt I'm going to read another Steinbeck book, and I sure as heck didn't finish Heart of Darkness because it almost literally gave me stomach ulcers, it was so painful to stomach, but hey, I get the gist. I know that the whale in Moby Dick stands for something-something lalala. I know that Henry James ushered in a new era in writing style and themes. And I know that Brave New World and 1984 are dystopian novels (though I will forever call into question Huxley's writing ability).
So now we've established that there is a literary canon that most people should be aware of, and that school is a really good place to learn about those works. However, the most common misconception of schools is that education is completely separate from the real world. Tradition has established that there be an established basic curriculum that schools must cover, relevance be damned. Most tests do not measure retention and comprehension; that is why so many students can--and do--cram for tests, only to forget everything they ever learned about that subject within 24 hours of taking the test. That is why standardized tests such as the SAT have their worth constantly being called into question. What is it measuring? Academic aptitude--or a student's aptitude in cramming strategies? Intellectual achievement--or the level of a kid's achieving temporary absorption of the strategies needed to take the test? No--at this point the A in SAT stands for nothing, which is kind of darkly amusing and indicative.
Why should an institution that has so much responsibility and influence over a child's upbringing be thus detached from real world application? An appallingly high percentage of students nowadays find school completely useless. My own brother's educational mantra has become, "Why are we even studying this anyway? I have no use for this." We have been brought up with the belief that the literary canon is something that we all should know--but along the way, we forgot why it's important, why it was canonized. Why, it's important because many people over the years have said so! one may argue. It was canonized because it withstood the test of time! Well...uh....yeah, but why did it withstand the test of time?
It's not a problem with the texts, people like Martin would then say, but rather a problem with the way the teacher is presenting the material. Perhaps. I don't deny that there are some awful teachers out there who don't deserve their tenure or their positions. But when the majority of students out there find their English class required reading lists irrelevant, then we must overhaul our thinking of the educational system. We cannot simply assume that students in college prep classes are in those classes because they understand, appreciate, and like the material. Do you realize how many students out there unwillingly force themselves into Honors and AP classes because they've had it drilled into their heads by all facets of society that if they don't get on the college prep track, they will never get into a good college and thus will not succeed in life? Hidi & Renninger have done extensive research on the relationship between interest, motivation, and expression of interest, and their four-phase model of interest development is as follows:
- triggered situational interest
- maintained situational interest
- emerging individual interest
- well-developed individual interest
The goal of education is not to create armies of zombies who acquiesce to the status quo and, while transcribing corporate documents or crunching numbers, believe that the way things were and are is the way things should be forever. Education is not a field of study similar to math and most sciences, where, once something is proven to be true, it can remain as fact for hundreds of years, and maybe even for all time. Even educational practices in place five years ago seem woefully out of date today. In education, success does not mean adherence to traditional methods. It means bringing out the best in each student. Acknowledging that there are individual as well as generational differences. Fostering a mind open to change and new ideas. Education equals change, and we want students to ask questions, to speak up if they disagree with something, and to accept that there are different sides to every story.
Smartly chosen YA books close the gap between school and real life, and encourage students to make connections and to take personal interest in things. Read the classics alone, discuss them within the context of the classroom, and students are more likely to feel apathetic about the works, dispassionate about reading and learning in general. Read the classics alongside similar contemporary works that are relevant to students' lives and feelings, and suddenly the "old" stuff takes on significance. I'm not a Shakespeare fan, yet I am constantly surprised and impressed at the many ways in which Shakespeare has manifested itself into our modern culture, without our knowledge.
A huge mistake is in assuming that only those works that have withstood the test of time are worth studying. This gives students the impression that childhood, schooling, and adolescence are only preparations for the Ultimate Crowning Glory of Adulthood, and that you have to be old to make a difference. Contemporary YA lit shows these students that it's okay to feel all those teenage insecurities and make those mistakes that seem awful the day after, but become fodder for laughter in a few months. Those who oppose YA lit trivialize the intelligence of teenagers, and those teens that have been bombarded with this kind of thinking grow up to be either the close-minded, loud-mouthed adults who believe that the success of their passage through adolescence makes everything they say the only way things can be, or else they become the feeble workers with the hunched corners sitting in corners and always fearing to speak up.
There is the mistaken association that things related to teens = bad/unimportant/valueless, and that contemporary books = low-quality/fluff/garbage. There is also the impression that the only books that belong in academia are those with "adult" themes, chosen by adults who believe their children should learn the things and the way they did. I think the biggest--and most important--voice missing from this debate, however, is the voice of those Kentucky high school students in Risha Mullins' class. What did they gain from the inclusion of YA texts on their reading lists? If they found that the "contemporary teen books," as Martin says so disdainfully, have actually bettered their relationship with and understanding of the classics and learning, then that's really all the data you need. YA literature is not attempting to lower the quality of literature; rather, considered in conjunction with canonized works, it may serve to enhance the reading and learning experience.
It's high time that the adults who have been the ones constructing curriculum requirements and composing the required reading lists take a step back, and allow the opinions and desires of the students to be heard. After all, progress in education means change, and who better than those whom we are trying to educate to become the change-makers of the present and future?