Today's Reading

As I wrote up my year in school, friends expressed some doubts. Wasn't Beacon a special school with a special New York population? How well would it "scale"? That is, how much of what I found could be used (if anyone wanted to use it) by other public schools in other parts of the country—schools with different values, different students? My initial response was that there weren't any typical high schools in America. What would they be—suburban schools, country schools, inner-city schools? They are all different. Any generalization you could make about American education, even one heavily backed with statistics, could be refuted by a contrary generalization, a contrary example. America isn't Finland; it's a big country, enormously diverse, and you could tie yourself in knots trying to typify and generalize while not learning much of anything that mattered. Therefore I would do better to observe a single place where literary education seemed to be working.

My resistance to the idea of scale was tied, I realized, to my distaste for the increasingly dominant American notion that only those things that could be quantified mattered in national life. Assertions that cannot be backed with statistics and probabilities—metricized, in tech-world jargon—create at best shrugging indifference, at worst disgust and ridicule. The demand for quantifiable results has created a desperate obsession with test scores. In the view of opponents like education historian Diane Ravitch, the obsession with scores has denatured education's function as cultural enrichment, as citizen making, as soul making. Let's put it this way: you don't have to be John Keats to realize that the soul and what used to be called sensibility—a combination of knowledge, taste, judgment, wildness, respect—can never be quantified.

As I got into the writing, however, I discovered that my friends had a point. Beacon's Sean Leon had an unusual reading list—existential classics, including Huxley, Orwell, Hesse, Vonnegut, Dostoevsky, Beckett, but not Twain, Dickens, Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, or even Shakespeare. He grabbed his students by the throats and shook them into life. He challenged them constantly, asking them to define themselves and take hold of their lives. He was clearly trying to shape character with the books he assigned, the discussions he led. Other teachers could perhaps learn from parts of what he did, perhaps use parts of it, but they couldn't replicate the entire experience. They couldn't be him. And certainly no one could say that his was the only way to talk to teenagers. There is, of course, no ideal reading list, no perfect syllabus, no perfect classroom manner, but only strategies that work or don't work. In a reading crisis, we are pragmatists as well as idealists.

So I came around. Typicality and comprehensiveness remained impossible to achieve, but variety was not. I delayed finishing the book, and, in the academic year 2013-14, I visited tenth-grade English classes in two other public high schools—shuttling up many times during the year to the James Hillhouse High School, an inner-city school in New Haven with a largely poor African American population; and five times in the spring to a school in a wealthy New York suburb—Mamaroneck, a "bedroom town" in the language of the fifties, where people sent their kids to good schools (and paid as much as $30,000 annually in taxes to do so). Hillhouse had multiple troubles, including many transients, drop-outs, low-performing kids. At the beginning of the year, the tenth-grade students refused to read the assigned texts at home; they weren't openly rebellious, but they seemed puzzled by the assignments. What was the point? At a school like Hillhouse, only the most dedicated, passionate, and inventive teachers can help students surge forward, and I think I found one. But Mamaroneck High School was worried, too. The administration and the English Department were alarmed to discover that some of their kids were not reading the assigned books. The nonreaders and grudging readers consulted the online "study aid" SparkNotes and threw back what it had to say about The Great Gatsby and Macbeth; they listened in class, picked up what they could, and brazened it out. Acting on its disappointments, Mamaroneck was attempting something new with parts of its English curriculum. Pleasure in reading was the key issue for them. They needed to create it.

People read for all sorts of reasons, and at all levels of difficulty and art. (Only prigs read demanding books all the time.) A minority, perhaps, read not only to enjoy themselves but to understand the world, and, ultimately, to know how to live and die in it. That kind of reading is a special good. If saying so amounts to an elitist assumption, I accept the charge—as long as it's understood that this is an elite anyone can join. Those who assume that serious recreational reading is bound solely by class (the upper middle class and those who would join it) may be overvaluing their own pessimism. The entranceway is not as narrow as that. The first premise of American public education is that the door is wide open. The question always is how many will walk through or get pushed through. That entranceway is where teachers matter more than the rest of us.

To argue that reading is good seems as silly as arguing that sex, nature, and music are good. Who could disagree? Yet, implicitly, many teenagers do disagree. This book, I hope, will provide something better than an argument; it will perhaps offer a small demonstration—not a proof, certainly, but a small demonstration—of why literature should be central to the moral, spiritual, and pleasurable life of young people.

The teachers appear under their own names. The students are real people, and I have taken down their words faithfully. Teenagers, however, should not be tagged by an outsider at a vulnerable time in their lives, and I have made up names for them. I have called them "boys" and "girls." They were fifteen going on sixteen.

As I earlier noted, I visited Beacon one year, Hillhouse and Mamaroneck in another. Most of the book was written after the reporting was done, and I realized, as I wrote, that the practices of one school, or one English class, challenged, contradicted, played on the practices of another. So I have raised these issues in what I wrote, at the end of my experience, regardless of when the classes took place in time.

I'm not crazy about writing "his or her" to describe a group mixed by gender. Those locutions kill the rhythm of nearly every sentence they appear in. At least they kill my sentences—other writers may be shrewder in getting around the problem. Therefore I have used, as a generalizing pronoun, "she" in some cases and "he" in others, "hers" in some cases and "his" in others. Nothing should be inferred from the use of one pronoun or another. It's just a compositional strategy to avoid bad prose.

I went looking for good public-school teachers. It was only after I found a few that I realized they were all members of teacher unions.

The number twenty-four refers to the books, stories, and plays discussed in the text. The complete reading lists for the classes I visited can be found in appendix 1.

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