Saturday, August 30, 2008

Catcher in the Rye: Does it Speak to us anymore?

The children's and YA blogosphere is alive with mentions of an article in Good Magazine: Anne Trubek on Why We Shouldn't Still be Learning Catcher in the Rye. As always, I am most interested in the comments.

One of the comments says that "no other book can resonate with adolescents" as well as Catcher. Every comment in one way or another says that the list of suggested books to replace Catcher, which includes Speak and American Born Chinese, is lame and ridiculous and all the characters are completely unrelatable to today's teens because it's not relevant to the commenters or their kids or the teens they know. Of course, you all know my response to that: The plural of "anecdote" is not "evidence." Beyond all that, I have one question for all the commenters:

One would never teach history and ignore events that happened after 1955. One would never teach science and stop at discoveries made after 1955. Music history doesn't stop with John Cage. Film studies classes include Fellini and Hitchcock, but they also include the Coen brothers. Given all this, why do you deem it all right and even a best practice in education, to not teach literature with teen protagonists written after 1955?

I have never understood this need to teach classics and only classics and classics all the time. In fact, I don't think Holden Caulfield is more or less relatable than most other protagonists in literature with teen characters. I can't speak for anyone else, but I am a middle-class white girl who never saw New York until she was 17. I went to public school (I know, the horror!) and couldn't fathom having a roommate, money to travel to a big city, or a little sister who I thought was the coolest thing ever. Sure, there were parts of Catcher's narrative I liked but overall I thought Holden was making much ado about nothing.

Could I relate to Holden Caulfield? Not really.

Could I relate to Melinda Sordino, another middle-class white girl who was anything but popular and privileged? You betcha.

I went to one of the most ethnically diverse high schools in Illinois. There were students from about 55 countries that spoke as many languages. One thought nothing of walking down the halls and hearing everything except English being spoken. It was commonplace to look into the cafeteria and see Indian kids sitting with Korean kids sitting with Polish kids. My best friend from elementary school through college was fluent in English, Spanish, and Thai, and she was not unusual among my classmates in terms of languages spoken. Could many students relate to Jin Wang in American Born Chinese? Yes.

I realize that not all high schools are the same and in fact, I realize that my high school was an anomaly in terms of diversity. But that doesn't change my question of teaching modern teen literature. Why isn't English held to the same standards as history and science? Don't tell me that the world of literature doesn't change. It does, and it changes as much as history and science do, and in ways just as important. Literature is a reflection of the world we live in, and trust me, the world of teens has changed a bit since 1955. I'm not saying that Catcher is a bad book or that it shouldn't be taught, but it's not the be-all end-all of books with teen protagonists. I admire Salinger's ability to create characters and I like a good number of his books now that I'm an adult. The teen character in a high school literature classroom, though, deserves modernization. In terms of basic humanity and self-discovery, Holden does ask some of the same questions modern teens ask: Can I keep up with my changing and increasingly imperfect world? Where do I stand between childhood and adulthood? I think, however, that rather than proving that Holden needs to stand alone, above today's YA literature, his journey and self-discoveries mean that he stands among other great books that explore similar subjects, have teen protagonists, and were written after 1955.

Old books are not always bad books and new books are not always good books. As the world of literature expands every year, just like the worlds of science and history and math and the arts, it is paramount that we acknowledge its changes and encourage students to examine them. If Catcher does that for students, that's great, but that doesn't mean Speak and American Born Chinese and yes, even a (gasp) television show like Freaks and Geeks won't.

P.S. I hated Heart of Darkness in high school, and I still hate Heart of Darkness now.

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