Why We Should Stop Teaching Novels to High School Students

Natasha Vargas-Cooper in BookForum:

Did0-002-197x300It wasn’t until my second reading of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, over a decade after it first had been assigned to me by my public high school English teacher, that I understood that Jake’s dick didn’t work. The word “impotence” never shows up in the book, and in my teenage mind it didn’t pose a huge problem between him and Lady Brett. Couldn’t they just dry hump like every one else in the tenth grade did? Abstract notions of emasculation—how that related to bullfighting, trench warfare, loss, diminution, dying—did not even occur to me. And even if some enterprising young teacher (which numbered exactly 10 in the 3,800-student high school I attended) had had the time to spell it all out—whack me over the head with a “goodbye to all that! the end of an era!” sermon—I doubt it would have made much difference. For I, like most high school sophomores, had no frame of reference to tap into the heady though subtle emotions that course through Hemingway’s novels. Reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald now, on the treacherous precipice of thirty, I can kind of relate to the themes of adult loss, waning youth, disintegrating plans buried under too many compromises. But teenagers? I’m agog that these novels show up on high schoolers’ reading list. I think about how hungry I was a teenager, starving for stimuli. It couldn’t be just anything. It had to feel vital and urgent, to be something that could put words to all the new and bewildering feelings that wriggled through my body each day. Trout fishing in Spain did not cut it.

Picture: Joan Didion.

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