Across the country, students are being brainwashed. The boomers blame social media, and they may be right. But there’s another kind of indoctrination that grinds my gears — I speak of the cult of the American high school English class.
Lately, there has been much evaluation of what we teach children, primarily in history classes. While history certainly shapes our worldview, fiction does, too. So many of the stories we read are just… miserable. Stories ought to teach us about the world; they shouldn’t try to get us to hate it.
Frequently, the works we were assigned posed negative arguments — arguments against something, rather than for something. This is made most clear by the overabundance of dystopian literature in public school curricula. “Fahrenheit 451,” “1984,” “Brave New World” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” can all be found on your average reading list. It’s rather exhausting to read this much of the same genre. I understand, Mr. Hough, totalitarianism is bad.
“But,” you might say, “what’s wrong with emphasizing that? Totalitarianism IS bad!” Of course I agree with that. But what is a good government? What can we aspire to? What can we use as a goal to motivate us?
I’m not saying that writing about negative events is bad; rather, it’s the lack of nuance. Because when we attempt to teach values by showing what not to do, we fail to inspire students with what they should do. Take the grand American classic, “The Great Gatsby.” Oh, this beloved work! The romance! The drama! The critique of the elite!
I loathe “The Great Gatsby.” Fitzgerald’s magnum opus comes across like he resents everyone, not just the elite of society. Just look at the characters: Tom Buchanan, a racist, misogynistic, meatheaded, adulterous and egotistical rich boy; Daisy, a shallow, fickle aristocrat who betrayed Gatsby several times; Gatsby, a stalker with deep connections to the mob through Wolfsheim, deluded by an imaginary version of Daisy; Nick Carraway, who watches his cousin get cheated on, says nothing, and then feels this strange superiority over the friends he constantly surrounds himself with; and George Wilson, a feeble man turned murderer. Don’t get me started on his wife.
Fitzgerald was transparently disillusioned with humanity. There is not a single good person in his story, no one to look up to. What happens when this is taught to high schoolers? For one, it inadvertently glorifies the toxicity of Daisy and Gatsby, but if we look deeper into Fitzgerald’s argument, we see no blueprint for meaningful relationships. Realism is one thing, but life isn’t black and white. People — and their relationships — are complex, and our assessment of their complexities helps us become better people in turn.
Characters like Tom are gross oversimplifications. He’s violent, racist and abusive. He’s irredeemable. What do we learn from him, except to not be like him? This dismissive attitude about social problems trivializes them, and makes it harder for us to apply the lessons we should be learning to our lives. Real people, while flawed, have other qualities. It’s easy to dismiss these people as deplorables, but most aren’t. That’s what makes these problems difficult to tackle in the first place.
Kids spend far too much time in school reading bleak stories. It’s a travesty that most high schoolers only read Shakespeare’s tragedies. John Steinbeck is another author who massacres his characters, yet he’s the everyday ninth grade English teacher’s go-to.
Not all English literature is like this. “To Kill a Mockingbird” manages to display both the good and the evil inside people. It has a bittersweet conclusion rather than a happy ending. I agree with the realists that the fantastical, happily-ever-after stories are overdone, and that most people don’t have the flawless characters of epic heroes like Beowulf and Diomedes. But there is such a thing as an overcorrection — good people do exist, and life isn’t always suffering. I wish we would read more Harper Lees and fewer George Orwells and Nathaniel Hawthornes.
Earlier I spoke of the recent shift in thinking with respect to the way history is taught in the United States. Greater emphasis will soon be placed on other areas. This has clear merit. So why not extend that to how we teach literature? The Russian tradition is ripe with bittersweet, incredible tales assessing the human condition. Authors like Fyodor Dostoyevsky cover heavy topics, to be sure, but there’s no feeling of misanthropy. Razumihin and Prince Myshkin are realistic yet admirable people. East Asian works are neglected in literary circles. Latin American classics like “Love in the Time of Cholera” perfectly capture the kind of storytelling we need more of. The characters of Mishima and Allende have exactly the nuance and moral dilemmas that fiction should, while remaining realistic and entertaining.
Intricate characters and storylines, ones that cover both the good and the bad, can help us understand people. The 2020 election is ongoing. In a way, the slow results are a good thing, as they force us to contend with the fact that about seventy million people disagree with each other in this country. This year has been a divisive one, and if we ever hope to bridge the gap between rural and urban America, we have to see the good in people. Just as Boo Radley wasn’t the monster he was made out to be, most Trump and Biden voters are more than who they supported in an election. Everyone has some kind of battle, and if we want to come to a consensus we have to recognize that.
So let’s be more cosmopolitan with the books we read and not eagerly shove another dystopian novel into the hands of a 13-year-old who should have learned how bad Stalinism is from a social studies class. English literature does have its classics, but works like “Lolita” don’t exactly get at what I’m talking about here. There are countless foreign Atticus Finches that can act as role models for us out there. We simply need to find them.
ARON RAVIN is a first year in Benjamin Franklin College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.