Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Dumbing-Down of the Summer Reading List

I'm not 100% certain what the specific books assigned as summer reading by the high school I attended were, but I do know that they were serious literary works. I remember senior year we got to choose from several options but I don't recall what the options were nor which one I ultimately picked since that was the summer I spent preparing for the Advanced Placement Literature exam. I do remember my best friend picked Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton because she absolutely HATED the ending of it, LOL! I believe that A Separate Peace by John Knowles may have been 9th, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens may have been 10th, and an Arthur Miller anthology may have been 11th but I'm not totally sure about that.

Anyways, I was reminded of this today when I read an article in the Christian Science Monitor called "High School Reading Lists Get a Modern Makeover." What I found particularly interesting was the comparison between the assigned reading lists of the 1960's vs. the 1980's vs. today:

"Of the nine most commonly taught books in public high schools in 1963, only one (the 1938 play Our Town) was written in the 20th century. By 1988, the 10 most commonly taught novels in public schools included four books from the 20th century: The Great Gatsby (1925), Of Mice and Men (1937), Lord of the Flies (1954), and To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). Today, staples in summer reading lists include: Life of Pi by Yann Martel, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, Monster by Walter Dean Myer, and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold."
Now, it's certainly possible that 50 years from now, certain of these recently-published books will be considered "classics". The Kite Runner in particular I've heard is an excellent book. However, shouldn't we be waiting to see which modern books stand the test of time before deciding to replace an actual classic on school reading lists? If we're going to have children read Alice Sebold rather than Jane Austen or Edith Wharton, shouldn't we be confident that Ms. Sebold's book has a lasting impact such as Miss Austen's or Mrs. Wharton's novels?

The CSM article quotes Arizona State University professor Alleen Nilsen as applauding the modernization trend:
"It used to be, no matter where you were in high school, you got this list of classics that the value was to talk about them with other people, not to read them yourself," she says. "We're taking this lesson from the [physical education] teachers. Rather than making kids do these things they hate, they're letting them choose what they want to do, so that when they're adults, they'll keep exercising. Summer reading is the perfect time if we want to get kids to read the rest of their lives without us sitting over their heads and telling them what to read. Let them ... just lose themselves in a good book."
Actually, the value of reading classic literature is not just for cultural literacy purposes, though that's certainly important. As Tracey Lee Simmons discusses in his excellent book Climbing Parnassus, the value of reading literature, attending the symphony, or viewing a museum exhibition is to improve ourselves by exposure to the highest achievements of the past (emphasis in the original):

"[Great works] did not merely entertain; they exposed us to something better than we could find elsewhere. And we hoped that such exposure would make us better as well- healthier intellectually and emotionally....Classical education was thought to improve the learner, not simply to make him more knowledgeable or tolerant or mentally skillful, but better and stronger, just as there survives today a residual belief that one who has, say, read and digested all of Shakespeare is better, more insightful, than one who has not."
Besides, many literary works are great stories that are enjoyable to read. Dickens and Shakespeare specifically wrote to entertain popular audiences. There's no reason why students can't "lose themselves in a good book" as Dr. Nilsen puts it while reading classic literature.

Teacher Nick Senger has several excellent blogs, and one of them is called "Teen Literacy Tips". In it, he writes about how to get reluctant teenagers excited about reading. His list of "30 Must-Read Classics for Teenage Boys" includes a ton of books with great narratives to interest both boys *and* girls (or at least this female, LOL!)


Nick Senger said...

Thank you so much for the kind words and the link to Teen Literacy Tips.

I couldn't agree with you more on this issue regarding book lists.


Alasandra said...

They also are ignoring the fact that many, many books including some modern ones refer to the classics, or mythology or many other things that today's students know nothing about.

It never ceases to amaze my husband that our 15 year old knows who Scylla & Charybdis are but many young adults don't.

Being required to read classics gives students a chance to discover a type of literature that they might not investigate on their own.

Marye said...

Excellent post! As we are contemplating our 15 year old's reading list this year I find myself nodding as I read your words!


Judy Aron said...

Excellent post!
yes - unfortunately as the school get dumbed down so do our libraries.
We have seen this first hand in our own public library (which is supposed to be a really good one) because when we were looking for - I think it was Moby Dick or Tom Sawyer - the only one available in the teen Room was a comic book version.
I was dumbfounded!
The librarian explained that they had gotten rid of books that had not been circulated often in order to save space and make room for new materials.
She also seemed upset that classics - and unabridged versions - were disappearing. (sigh)

I do like the list of books in "The Well Trained Mind"

Sarah said...

Great post. I've been pondering this myself lately as I am preparing to teach American Lit to our co-op's high-schoolers. I have carefully chosen classics and stayed away from anything more contemporary than A Separate Peace. It would be different if I were to teach a class called Contemporary Lit. But The Lovely Bones? I would absolutely NOT want my teen reading that. And as much as I absolutely love The Kite Runner, I would not classify this in any way as young adult reading material. Wow! I had no idea that the PS reading lists included some of those!

Shauna said...

I never had an assigned summer reading list while in high school at all and felt free to read whatever I wanted, both classics and contemporary novels. I don't agree that including contemporary works on such lists with classics necessarily means that they're being dumbed down, either.

Deckard Family said...

As a teenager I loved to read but wish I had been steered towards classics. I must have been part of the "dumbing down" experiment. I don't remember anyone reading classics expect for some Shakespeare and that was only in the college prep. English class. Thankfully I get to discover wonderful literature with my children.


jugglingpaynes said...

I love seeing what made the summer reading list. It always reminds me why I homeschool. I never understood the criteria for choosing. Is it darts or do they just pick them out of a hat?
Thanks for the Teenage Boys classics list. I'm always at a loss of what will appeal to my 11 yo ds. I just don't think he will love Austen the way my 14 yo dd does!

Peace and Laughter

JacciM said...

Amen, amen. Even the libraries in our town have really compromised the literary quality of their summer reading list recommendations. I've voiced my encouragement to give children a chance to see WHY the great books are considered great books. All too often they get labeled as boring only because adults think kids will be turned off by them. I overheard two pre-teen boys at the library the other day. One asked the other if he had ever seen "this book". He casually said, "Naw, but it looks pretty good." The book was The Red Badge of Courage, lol. We'll get what we expect, I suppose. Great post. The Simmons book a subject on my blog for several weeks, too. Very thought provoking :)

Anonymous said...

Interesting post.

There's an interesting book, Welcome to Lizard Motel, in which the author talks about the disturbing themes in the new Young Adult (award-winning) literature which is "written in a confessional tone, usually in the first-person voice of an angry or alienated teenager. The protagonist deals with traumatic experiences: murder, suicide, the death of a parent or friend, incest, sexual abuse, rape, drugs, abortion, kidnapping, abandonment. Friendly or protective adults are virtually nonexistent..."

The author's son insisted on keeping his bedroom door open while reading books assigned by his teacher. Mom began reading the books herself, then wrote about her findings. --Sorry this post has become a book! :(

Here's more, if interested:

Callista said...

With school starting back up soon I've heard lots of talk about summer reading lists. I never had a summer reading list. IT's summer, it's supposed to be a break from school isn't it? How can they tell you what to read over the summer? Or is it just a suggestion?

Michael J. Farrand said...

I share your concerns about the new stuff. Thought you might want to check out my list of class novels. It's more of the traditional approach.