Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Dead White Guys

Ten or twelve years ago, maybe longer, back when I was a pretty new teacher, I was invited to serve on a committee for the county-wide language arts department. Someone had decided that there should be a middle school author study, and it was our job to choose a "classic American author" and write some grade-level curriculum. After the first hour or so, this group of 8 white women decided that the works of Jack London would best lend themselves to interdisciplinary connection with our social studies curriculum, which was American history in 6th and 7th grade and world geography in 8th. The initiative had come from someone on the school board, and so our recommendation and outline of possible activities and materials were sent forward for review. It turned out that this particular official had hated Jack London when she was in high school, and so the project was refocused to create an author study of Mark Twain. The consensus was that his work more closely aligned with the social studies material anyway, and we worked hard to design units of study for all the middle school kids in the county.

Somewhere out there is still the vaguest of expectations that all of us teach the Twain, but, to be honest, there is no accountability, and very few teaches still do it. In my own experience, I found that it is usually pretty excruciating, and I wrote the lesson plans. Maybe I'm not a good teacher, or maybe Mark Twain is irrelevant to many of our students. Maybe both. When I think about it today, though, I think the key to the whole thing lies in the beginning of this story: We arbitrarily selected Jack London, who was just as arbitrarily vetoed, because a successful and well-educated person found his work unengaging, and so another long-dead author was chosen to replace him, also somewhat at random, and then we were surprised when students found it challenging to relate to his life and work. We even worried about the kids and the future of our culture if they couldn't appreciate Mark Twain, but it was okay for the school board member to give the thumbs down on Jack London-- obviously, the future of society was not at stake there.

I think we want to believe in a canon of literature the way children believe in Santa. But as David Sedaris pointed out, in Holland, St. Nicholas arrives at your house with 6-8 black men and a switch to beat you if you've been naughty. And if you've been really bad, they throw you in a sack and take you to Spain. Hmm... at least they don't force you to read London or Twain.

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