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JOURNAL

Answer ONE of the following questions after reading Francine Prose’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read.” Your response should be well thought out with very few if any grammatical or sentence errors.  Your response should be 200-300words in length. It is due Thursday before 11:59pm.

#1: Prose is highly critical of the quality of both I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and To Kill a Mockingbird. If you have read either, write an evaluation of her criticism of the book. Is she setting up this book to be unfairly judged?

-OR-

#2: Prose is skeptical of using literary works to teach values. Write a journal entry in which you support or challenge her position using specific examples to support your position.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read

How American High School Students Learn to Loathe Literature

Francine Prose

Francine Prose, who was born in the late 1940s, is a reporter, essayist, critic, and editor. She has also written more than twenty books, includ- ing poetry, fiction, and children’s literature. Her novel Blue Angel (2000) was a finalist for the National Book Award, and her nonfiction works The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired (2002) and Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and Those Who Want to Write Them (2006) were both national best sellers.  She has received numerous grants and awards, including

Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships. She is most recently the author of the satiric novel My New American Life (2011). Prose is currently a book reviewer for a num- ber of magazines and periodicals, including the New York Times Book Review and

O. The following essay, published in Harper’s in September 1999, is a critique of the quality of required reading in American high schools.

Books discussed in this essay include:

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Bantam Books, 1983.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Warner Books, 1988.

Teaching Values through Teaching Literature by Margaret Dodson.

Eric/Edinfo Press, 1993.

Teaching the Novel by Becky Alano. Eric/Edinfo Press, 1989.

Teaching Literature by Women Authors by Carolyn Smith McGowen.

Eric/Edinfo Press, 1993.

ike most parents who have, against all odds, preserved a lively and still evolv- ing passion for good books, I find myself, each September, increasingly appalled by the dismal lists of texts that my sons are doomed to waste a school year reading. What I get as compensation is a measure of insight into why our society has come to admire Montel Williams and Ricki Lake so much more than Dante and Homer. Given the dreariness with which literature is taught in many American classrooms, it seems miraculous that any sentient teenager would view reading as a source of pleasure. Traditionally, the love of reading has been born and nurtured in high school English class — the last time many students will find themselves in a roomful of people who have all read the same text and are, in theory, prepared to discuss it. High school — even more than college — is where literary tastes and allegiances are formed: what we read in adolescence is imprinted

on our brains as the dreary notions of childhood crystallize into hard data.

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The intense loyalty adults harbor for books first encountered in youth is one probable reason for the otherwise baffling longevity of vintage mediocre novels, books that teachers may themselves have read in adolescence; it is also the most plausible explanation for the peculiar [1998] Modern Library list of the “100 Best Novels of the 20th Century,” a roster dominated by robust survivors from the tenth- grade syllabus. Darkness at NoonLord of the FliesBrave New World, and The Studs Lonigan Trilogy all speak, in various ways, to the vestigial teenage psyches of men of a certain age. The parallel list drawn up by students (younger, more of them female) in the Radcliffe Publishing Course reflects the equally romantic and tacky tastes (Gone with the WindThe Fountainhead) of a later generation of ado- lescent girls.

Given the fact that these early encounters with literature leave such indelible impressions, it would seem doubly important to make sure that high school stu- dents are actually reading literature. Yet every opportunity to instill adolescents with a lifelong affinity for narrative, for the ways in which the vision of an artist can percolate through an idiosyncratic use of language, and for the supple gym- nastics of a mind that exercises the mind of the reader is being squandered on regimens of trash and semi-trash, taught for reasons that have nothing to do with how well a book is written. In fact, less and less attention is being paid to what has been written, let alone how; it’s become a rarity for a teacher to suggest that a book might be a work of art composed of words and sentences, or that the choice of these words and sentences can inform and delight us. We hear that more books are being bought and sold than ever before, yet no one, as far as I know, is arguing that we are producing and becoming a nation of avid readers of serious literature.

Much has been made of the lemminglike fervor with which our universities have rushed to sacrifice complexity for diversity; for decades now, critics have decried our plummeting scholastic standards and mourned the death of cultural literacy without having done one appreciable thing to raise the educational bar or revive our moribund culture. Meanwhile, scant notice has been paid, except by exas- perated parents, to the missed opportunities and misinformation that form the true curriculum of so many high school English classes.

My own two sons, now twenty-one and seventeen, have read (in public and pri- 5 vate schools) Shakespeare, Hawthorne, and Melville. But they’ve also slogged repeat- edly through the manipulative melodramas of Alice Walker and Maya Angelou, through sentimental, middlebrow favorites (To Kill a Mockingbird and A Separate Peace), the weaker novels of John Steinbeck, the fantasies of Ray Bradbury. My older son spent the first several weeks of sophomore English discussing the class’s sum- mer assignment, Ordinary People, a weeper and former bestseller by Judith Guest about a “dysfunctional” family recovering from a teenage son’s suicide attempt.

Neither has heard a teacher suggest that he read Kafka, though one might suppose that teenagers might enjoy the transformative science-fiction aspects of

The Metamorphosis, a story about a young man so alienated from his “dysfunc- tional” family that he turns— embarrassingly for them— into a giant beetle. No instructor has ever asked my sons to read Alice Munro, who writes so lucidly and beautifully about the hypersensitivity that makes adolescence a hell.

In the hope of finding out that my children and my friends’ children were excep- tionally unfortunate, I recently collected eighty or so reading lists from high schools throughout the country. Because of how overworked teachers are, how hard to reach during the school day, as well as the odd, paranoid defensiveness that pervades so many schools, obtaining these documents seemed to require more time and dogged perseverance than obtaining one’s FBI surveillance files — and what I came away with may not be a scientifically accurate survey. Such surveys have been done by the National Council of Teachers of English (published in the 1993 NCTE research report, Literature in the Secondary Schools), with results that both underline and fail to reflect what I found.

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