Goodbye to Gatsby; Let’s get our students truly reading again

Though no moment has ascended to the point of distinguishing itself as my academic peak – perhaps beating out Evan Peaco, now a Build Reliability Engineer at SpaceX, for King Middle School’s math scholarship in sixth grade qualifies, but that was simply malpractice on behalf of whoever comprised the voting committee – it’s clear it didn’t come during my high school years.

Less the problem child and more the lazy child, what didn’t interest me failed to command my free time, and so hours that could have been spent immersed in 18th century American history instead were filled with Grantland articles about “Homeland” and musings on the decrepit state of my beloved New York Knicks. Never before has one worn a “1” on the AP Calculus test with such pride.

Regardless, it was clear English was my lane. Reading and writing stimulated me where numbers and molecules failed, and a ninth-grade teacher, Ms. Pendleton, was especially formative. Amongst my peers I was rare in this regard, having identified where I wished to specialize from a comparatively early age and going through high school with that semi-comforting knowledge.

Ignore the fact that my future career related assuredness stemmed from an inability to maintain consciousness in my remaining subjects, that I incurred the all too prevalent athletically-induced favoritism from a number of history teachers, allowing me to glide in class with relative ease. What if I was bereft the good fortune to maintain this favorable position? Would Portland High School’s English curriculum have sparked the passion and fire for journalism I now possess?

Save for Ms. Pendleton’s best efforts, the answer to this latter question is almost surely – and emphatically – no. My syllabi covered the gamut of required, essential texts, from Salinger to Shakespeare, Bradbury to Beecher Stowe, Frost to F. Scott Fitzgerald. I think I read “A Separate Peace” four separate times.

A 2016 article in The Atlantic referenced a study done by the Center for Teaching and Learning, in which the institute identified the top ten books regularly taught in high schools, listed here. Though the study is now nearly 30 years old, each text mentioned was taught during my four-year stay at P.H.S. I’m sure my experience mirrors many in my age group.

Pushing antiquated reading lists on swaths of largely uninterested students is far from the best way to inspire a future generation of writers. It’s not that Gatsby or “Hamlet” don’t still contain lessons worthy of teaching; it’s that those lessons have been taught for decades with little modification to their perceived place and purpose in the literary canon.

Amongst the findings in the Center for Teaching and Learning’s report, “In the titles required in 30 percent or more of the public schools in 1988, Grades 7-12, there were only two women and no minority authors.” To suggest that I gathered more perspective on the state of our societal landscape by watching Jordan Peele’s cinematic “thriller” “Get Out” than I did reading Nick Carraway’s tale would be considered blasphemy in many factions of academia. It’s also true.

This problem lingers even when minority authors do find their way into the hands of high school students; generally the exposure begins with Frederick Douglass and rarely progresses any further. Racism is institutionalized within our education system and learned throughout years in which the only black characters one may encounter are Douglass, or Twain’s Jim.

Additionally, the rigidity with which these aforementioned lists are composed is enough to make what little hair Mr. Levasseur (senior year) had left stand on edge. Humorous texts, contrary to popular belief, don’t corrupt the brain. A little Nora Ephron or Jessica Mitford never hurt anyone. It’s valuable to show students there are many avenues to success and acclaim in the field; they don’t follow one glorious, all-encompassing yellow brick road.

Now a college senior with my high school days long in the rearview, I’m currently taking History of Earth and Life to fulfill Northeastern’s final core requirement. With requisite apologies to Professor Bailey, this is a complete and utter waste of my time. Allow me a mulligan on Rocks for Jocks so that I can pursue one last class in the English department.

Requiring at least one literature course should be a tenet of every successful journalism program at the University level. Last semester I took “American Women Writers,” my first ever such class during my time in college, and in it read Anna Deavere Smith’s “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.” It’s a perfect example of something too contemporary, too relevant, too liberal in its eschewal of form to be considered worthy of teaching in high schools.

An aptitude for reading is implicit in all good writers. Though my knowledge of crustaceans and the Cretaceous may suffer, I promise it’ll be worth it in the long run.


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