Every English teacher knows one unfortunate truth: not every student will read every book that is assigned to them in class.
Some may opt for the SparkNotes shortcut, others may decide to watch the movie instead (at their own risk), while some are trying an entirely new tactic: refusing to read the book on moral grounds.
While this seems like something that shouldn't happen in today's society, it's a fairly common practice. This is not just an issue for tight-laced conservatives or overly politically correct liberals, as students and parents of all political persuasions have been protesting having to read certain books or be exposed to certain information.
National headlines were made this summer when a number incoming freshman at Duke University protested the summer reading of Fun Home. The students insisted that the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, a story about her dysfunctional upbringing and the road to discovering her sexual orientation, went against their Christian beliefs by calling it "pornographic." Conservative parents have also called foul for their students having to so much as learn about other religions or being taught science in science class.
Mark Twain's classic, Huckleberry Finn, has come under fire several times in recent years because of racist themes and use of the N-word. Most recently, a Philadelphia-area high school removed the book from the list of required reading after students argued it wasn't inclusive enough and were offended by the language.
Here's the thing: good reading should be a challenge on many different levels. These students aren't just opting out of having to read a book and the assignments that come along with it, they're denying themselves the experience of being transformed by the power of literature.
Yes, Huck Finn has prominent racist tones, but that is hardly unexpected for a book first published in 1884 that takes place in the pre-Civil War South. While today's society still has a way to go toward true equality, it is still difficult to imagine what America was like in Finn's day. That stark reality of how people of color were treated is a shameful part of our country's history, to be sure, but that's precisely why it needs to be read. The fact that it is uncomfortable is a testament to how wrong we now believe that once-accepted behavior to be. To opt out of reading it to avoid meaningful yet difficult conversations on the topic spits in the face of those who endured that culture and risked their lives to change the world.
Through reading books, we are able to get perspectives that we may have never gotten in our lives otherwise. These new vantage points cause us to reevaluate what we believe to be true and why we feel that way. It doesn't always feel great to discover that you've been wrong or to learn about horrific tragedies, but becoming more informed and open-minded is a beautiful thing. We can't help make things better if we're not aware that there are problems.
Of course, not every book will be an epiphany that gives you a new set of values or opinions. Sometimes you'll read something that you disagree with vehemently, reaffirming what you already believed. That's OK, too. Any belief that is deemed to be "deeply held" should be able to stand up to the toughest scrutiny. Even if your mind doesn't change on an issue, there is still value in learning about an opposing view and truly understanding why you don't agree with it instead of clinging to strawman anecdotes.
For the last nine months or so, I have been re-reading many of the classic books I was assigned to read in high school. Books such as The Scarlet Letter, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and others that I didn't fully appreciate because of my then-undiagnosed ADHD are getting a second look. Whether it's because I'm now able to focus or because I have 12 years of life experience as an adult since the last time I turned the pages of these stories, I'm able to appreciate their timeless messages in a way I would never have expected to as a teenager.
There are meaningful connections to make between the way that Hester Prynne was treated in Puritanical New England for having a baby out of wedlock and the reproductive rights battles that women still face today. Atticus Finch (provided you remember Go Set a Watchmen was a draft that nobody was ever supposed to read) is still the prime example of doing what is right, especially when it is unpopular to do so.
The idea that other adults, like parents, teachers, and school board members, are so accepting of students missing out on experiencing what these books have to teach us is disappointing. While they might be sparing some uncomfortable feelings, they're denying those kids the opportunity to explore humanity in a meaningful way. Students who learn how to have respectful conversations about ideas presented in books will give them the tools they need to be adults who can look at multiple viewpoints to solve complex problems.
Fahrenheit 451 tells the tale of a future in which people become so sensitive to the content found in books, popular opinion believes it would be better to just get rid of them altogether. Information — and the uncomfortable feelings it can create — is deemed dangerous. The common citizen is too absorbed with the sanctity of their own feelings and the latest technological forms of entertainment to understand the reality of what their society has become. We need to keep reminding students and ourselves that this book represents a dystopia, it is not a goal to be attained.
The human experience can be messy at times. We're all biased by our own experiences about what the truths of reality are, but a good book can help change all of that. A true education is challenging and difficult, but it's worth it when we get that deeper understanding of what it truly is to be alive.
Cover image via Shutterstock