In high school, no one taught me what literature is.
I don't think the school district was to blame. Although I grew up in Texas with all of its bizarre educational inclusions and exclusions (see: abstinence-only sex ed, hints at creationism, and a year-long course designed specially to ensure that we "Remember the Alamo!"), my required readings seemed pretty much par for the course.
There were many well-crafted dystopian universes urging us that books should not be burned, language should not be condescended, and soma should be avoided. This makes a lot of sense. Look at the most popular Young Adult novels today -- teenagers love reading about the world ending, because to them, on any given day, it is.
There was also Shakespeare and his innuendo, Mark Twain and his sharp satirical tongue, Dickens and his heartfelt chronicling of social injustice. These are important books with digestible themes, and should be taught. But I packed my bags for college having read every single one of Shakespeare's plays and Twain's novels, but not knowing who Jorge Luis Borges or Doris Lessing were. And I considered myself an avid reader! This is a huge problem.
If my high school English education is guilty of one depravity, it is this: It taught me that history's greatest minds were usually white men who wrote almost exclusively about the American, or at least Western, experience. It taught me that literature means discussing this canon and its recurring themes with words like "allophone" and "anastrophe" and "alliteration". When it came to discussing books, words like "exploration" were just footnotes.
I've discussed this with friends, and their response is always the same: Kids don't like to read, so piling on more thematically foreign, and therefore challenging, work would be an even bigger deterrent.
This seems backwards to me. Kids opposed to more traditional learning are often looking for an escape -- video games, comic books, hard drugs. So why not literature? Exploring new cultures and perspectives doesn't have to be more difficult than treading known territory. Isn't hopping into the minds and lives of others supposed to be what makes literature not only important, but fun?
In a freshman survey course required for all students at the state college I attended, we read Brecht, Voltaire and Dostoyevsky, but the class responded most warmly to Nadine Gordimer and Ha Jin, writers who never so much as glossed over topics like The Civil War and the American Dream. I think it's because we felt transported -- a feeling we'd never associated with learning and knowledge.
Here are 9 books they SHOULD teach in American high schools, for a refreshing break from the same-old, same-old. What books do YOU think should be make high schools' required reading lists? Let me know in the comments!
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