Revising the high school lit curriculum: a modest proposal

Since I have mostly avoided reading classics all my adult life, naturally I am just the right person to pick out an appropriate high school curriculum. One that would have a chance of turning kids onto reading rather than off; or, at least, that is the plan. Yet still a curriculum that involves classics.

What could we choose?

1) The Lord of the Flies, fine, because it’s horrible but part of American culture and I guess it is not a bad idea to be familiar with it, but mostly because it would be interesting to contrast with Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens. Or so I hear. I have not read the latter, but I’m looking forward to it. BUT! Though I haven’t read Bray’s book, I would not want to risk suggesting any such message as Boys Turn Savage, Girls Pull Together, because ugh. Therefore, also Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky. That one strands both boys and girls in a survival situation, plus there is a lot to discuss at the end.

Ah, and in the same unit, how about Infinity Hold by Barry Longyear? That one is about adults, not kids; and they are surrounded by enemies, not just trying to stay alive until they can be rescued. But it would fit quite perfectly into a discussion about a) a small group of people, (b) who are stranded and alone with very few resources, (c) who form a new society. You could hardly prevent the class from having a splendid debate about how societies form and what law is. Also, assigning a book with adult protagonists gets away from the modern idea that young-people-should-be-limited-to-young-protagonists.

Are any of these stories as good as Lord of the Flies considered as literary works? Ah, good question, class! Let’s discuss literary quality and see if we can figure out why Lord of the Flies is part of the canon in the first place. (Me, I think it’s largely because people really do have the (deeply mistaken) notion that Depressing = Depth.)

As a quite startling perk, I find that Infinity Hold is actually part of a trilogy. I had no idea. Now I am absolutely dying to read the sequels. The two sequels are Kill All the Lawyers and Keep the Law, and I see both are available on Kindle. Yay!

2) I would be perfectly okay with assigning both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. But maybe just one and then students who like it can read the other? While we’re at it, let me just mention that a decent school library is an awesome thing.

Anyway, what to assign to read as companion pieces? How about Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze? Tom Sawyer is set in about, what, the 1840s or thereabouts? AndThe Freedom Maze is set in about 1860, with the frame story taking place in 1960. What else would make a good companion piece? How about Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede? That would give students a look at fantasy settings and how they can riff on real historical settings. I trust the school library would be able to find room for a good handful of Patricia Wrede’s other books, too.

3) What do you think of 1984? I think if you must assign a horrible dystopia where a boot stamps on the human face forever, then for heaven’s sake, let’s also assign a book where the horrible repressive government gets torn down and a more hopeful future is at least glimpsed. You could hardly do better than The Hunger Games. The whole trilogy, because you must reach the end or you don’t get that contrast. I had quibbles with the ending, but it’s a great series overall, plus can you imagine the debates that would ensue at the end? Also, you can contrast Mockingjay with, say, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Both are about both the brutality and the necessity of war.

4) I’m more or less keen on including A Tale of Two Cities, because I’ve heard good things about it but have never actually read it. If we’re going to assign that, then maybe Tell the Wind and Fire by Sarah Rees Brennan? That’s supposed to be a retelling of A Tale of Two Cities. I really loved The Demon’s Lexicon trilogy. While we’re on subject of classics and retellings, I didn’t like Moby Dick one bit, but I’m inclined to at least look at it before reading China Mieville’s Railsea, which is supposed to be something of a retelling. Also in the same category — and here I’ve read both — we have Sharon Shinn’s Jenna Starborn, which is a retelling of Jane Eyre. What do you all think? A classic plus a retelling equals fun for all? Or twice the turnoff for students who aren’t keen on the original?

5) Gulliver’s Travels. I don’t remember if that was assigned in high school, but I know I read it at some point, and liked it. If we’re going to assign satire, though, clearly we should also assign modern satire — eg, Terry Pratchett. I would vote for Making Money, which is one of his most satirish satires. Other votes?

6) What about Jane Austen? Would that be an example of tl;dr? Or would a reasonable proportion of high school students get into something like Pride and Prejudice? I think Austen’s language is beautiful and I enjoy her writing. But the movie version of Sense and Sensibility is so good, and shorter than the movie version of Pride. My suggestion is, watch the movie of Sense and Sensibility, then read the book, the reach for a different kind of comedy of manners — for example, Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton. Or Sorcery and Cecilia by Wrede and Stevermer. Or Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint. I can see all three appealing to a broader base of high school readers than Austen.

7) I know a lot of people are probably now growing up with the movie version of “The Lord of the Rings” as the definitive version. I would be inclined to assign the books. Especially since I just read Tom Shippey’s books on Tolkien. There’s a lot in those books. I wouldn’t want to destroy them for readers by diagramming every sentence, but I can see students having a fruitful discussion about the differences between the Shire and Rohan and Gondor, about free will and “fighting the long defeat” and just how happy was that ending, anyway?

8) Shakespeare’s plays are fine. But include as many comedies as tragedies, and for heaven’s sake, be sure and watch them instead of just reading them. I vividly remember reading “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and thinking it was the stupidest play ever written. When I actually *saw* it, I thought it was great. This experience has stuck with me. Plays are meant to be seen. I know, kinda obvious. But then why make students read “Hamlet” rather than watching it?

Okay, that’s eight, that’s plenty. Weigh in in the comments if you’re so inclined! If you got to design a high school curriculum, which commonly assigned books would you keep, if any, and what would you add to balance them?

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8 thoughts on “Revising the high school lit curriculum: a modest proposal”

  1. I think Pride & Prejudice might be good because it’s had such a cultural influence. But it’s hard to know exactly what to pair with it–Tooth & Claw is really quite Victorian and based on Trollope, while Sorcery & Cecelia is really very Georgette Heyer. However, there are LOTS of fun movie adaptations, including an LDS version, a Bollywood version, and a very (unintentionally) hilarious 1940s version with Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson.

    Personally, I say North & South, but that’s another classic and my English major speaking (I did a senior thesis junior year which compared the two).

    I know we read Fahrenheit 451, which is decent as dystopias go, but which I think becomes more and more out of date in a certain way. (It’s also been years since I read it, so I could be wrong about this.)

    One that might be fun is Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel (although there are some really cringeworthy racial bits in there) plus Diana Peterfreund’s Across a Star-Swept Sea, which is a post-apocalyptic retelling. Plus, The Scarlet Pimpernel! Heroism & swooniness all in one! Something for everyone!

    And I totally agree about watching Shakespeare’s plays. Live, if possible. And even read them out loud or act them out! This I think requires a certain level of trust in the class (not to laugh at mistakes), but makes such a difference.

  2. No no no trilogies. That is bad pedagogy. Instead of 1984, Brave New World, which has a hint of light at the end of the tunnel at the end. Also, Hunger Games is tedious in the middle. As I mentioned before: Emma instead of Tess. And Tom Sawyer early in the curriculum and Huckleberry Finn later. GATSBY is Senior year for sure. There are a lot of good, accessible older classics. I am not convinced that a steady diet of modern is useful in the classroom.

  3. I was a big fan of Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. It’s set in the 1920’s, but with the original Shakespeare, and since it’s well acted, you can always tell what’s going on. The jokes are still funny, even if you aren’t used to Shakespearean English. That’d be a good one to pair with a reading assignment.

    For dystopian novels, there’s sooo many to choose from. Maybe Uglies, or old school YA like The Giver, or The Summer Prince…in fact, there’s so many that that might be a good time to let students pick their own (or pick from a selection). If different students read different books, you can get some fun conversations going.

    Also of interest, Francesca Lia Block has Love in the Time of Global Warming, which is a retelling of the Odyssey.

    For historical fiction, it’d be fun to skip the normal sausage-fest of authors and instead focus on Elizabeth Wein’s terrifically researched books (can’t recommend Code Name Verity enough), or Mare’s War (Tanita Davis), or Between Shades of Gray (Ruta Sepetys) – books that focus on less covered aspects of heavily emphasized parts of history.

    When I was in school, the longer books got assigned over the summer. That’d be when you could get something like Pride & Prejudice in.

    I think standardized tests might have some influence on what books get taught more often. Teachers who want to teach to the tests, and all that…

  4. Maureen, definitely yes to The Scarlet Pimpernel. I loved that one. I think it’s just fine to assign a book that contains kneejerk anti-Semitism, which is what I particularly remember. That then becomes part of the class discussion after reading the story. Did you know Baroness Orczy wrote sequels, btw? I didn’t like them as much as the first book, but on the other hand, following Percy’s band forward is fun, too.

    North and South sounds good to me — both the movie and the book, and discuss the quality of the endings. I’m afraid that what mostly comes to mind for me when I think of the book is the hideous, hideous editing job someone did for my edition. I’ve never seen a book with so many typos. If you have an edition you especially like, please share, because I would not mind getting a copy I could re-read without flinching.

    Two thumbs up for Code Name Verity. Add “Schindler’s List” and you have at least the beginning of a WWII unit. I think that would be a good thing, as it does seem to me that, amazingly, WWII has faded into ancient history. I think it needs to be brought to life for younger readers.

    Pete, really? Don’t you think it matters whether the trilogy encompasses just one story or more than one? One could hardly assign The Fellowship of the Ring and then stop, for example. Perhaps the summer would be a good time to assign long works, including trilogies.

    That said, there are certainly a bunch of dystopias around. I just don’t know of any that are even half as good, or half as thought-provoking, as The Hunger Games. But then, there are many many many dystopias I haven’t read. SarahZ’s suggestion to offer a selection and let students pick seems fine to me.

    I stand by 1984. Doublethink and ridiculous euphemisms are rife — in all eras, I suppose, but certainly today — and arming students with the tools that can help them notice is surely a reasonable aim of pedagogy.

    And, not to throw stones at books most people seem to like better than I do, but I thoroughly disliked Emma. What a twit that girl is. By far my least favorite of Austen’s. Even Mansfield Park is vastly preferable: Fanny may be a total wimp, but she’s not as wrapped up in herself or idiotic as Emma.

    Gatsby I simply do not remember. It floated into my reading life and out again without leaving a trace.

    “Teaching to the test,” eh. If I was seriously going to teach all this, it’d be a concern. But since it’s just come-up-with-lists-for-fun, we’ll pretend that standardized tests don’t exist.

  5. North & South editions: I have an old paperback Penguin edition which is fine as far as I remember. And of course there’s a Norton Critical Edition which can be interesting because it includes some essays & context.

    I think I tried one of the Pimpernel sequels, but it didn’t have nearly the charm of the original.

  6. Thanks, Maureen. Believe me, if you had an edition as bad as mine, it would have stuck in your mind.

  7. Maybe Orwell’s essay on propaganda and political speech.
    Definitely pair LORD OF THE FLIES with something of the same sort as it, but less depressing,like TUNNEL, or Verne’s LONG VACATION.

    Can we dump that idiotic CATCHER IN THE RYE?

    I did not think much of Peterfreund’s one book that I read. My willing suspension of disbelief precipitated out somewhere along the line, so I personally wouldn’t recommend it, but I gather I’m an outlier. It did strike me as an easier read than Austen would be which may matter for the kids.


    FWIW ..We just last night met up with a friend who is an English teacher in high school down in the LA area (we’re traveling) and he said kids don’t know how to read. Not just the words, but they don’t know how to UNDERSTAND what they read, they don’t get any of the hints the author has dropped, don’t pick up on inferences. They need it all spelled out. And preferably in movies, or somehow on a screen.

  8. Elaine, luckily Catcher in the Rye was one I avoided. My brothers hated it, so I was glad to give it a miss. As I recall, they might have halfway liked Catch-22, but by that time I was already avoiding Assigned Books when possible, so I never even considered looking at it. If they’d just raved about it, naturally that would have been different.

    I also was not too impressed by For Darkness Shows the Stars, unfortunately. Here’s where retelling a classic I admire can be a problem: many people do not write as well as Jane Austen, but when you are retelling Persuasion, the difference impresses itself on the reader’s mind. Or so it was for me. It was close to a DNF for me, though I know a lot of people really liked it.

    Also, that’s depressing. I remind myself from time to time that Dorothy Sayers (I’m pretty sure it was Sayers) was writing about the dreadful illiteracy problem in what, the fifties. She was writing about how just because a reader can pronounce the word “Cat”, if the word produces no idea of a cat in their mind, they are illiterate. The more things change, eh? I have hope that maybe things aren’t actually so much worse than they used to be.

    On the other hand, ten years ago we did not see many students who couldn’t multiply 5 x 0 without a calculator. Now we see utter, complete, total mathematical illiteracy all the time. That is new.

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