A Powerful Argument for the Teaching of Literature



I made a mistake. In not electing many years ago to teach literature in high school rather than college, that is. At least that was the feeling that I frequently had while reading Lit Up: One Reporter, Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives by David Denby. If I had done so (and I realize that this is a bit of self-flattery), then maybe a student in a Lewis literature class, when asked about a favorite and significant book read while in high school, might be able to offer more than Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. Just maybe they would come to class as joyful rather than resisting readers.

Lit Up is a sequel of sorts for Denby, a film critic and essayist for The New Yorker. In his 1996 The Great Books, he documents his return, in his forties, to Columbia University, his alma mater, to retake the Great Books sequence, grappling once again with the intellectual challenges of reading the “indestructible writers of the Western World,” Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and others. That work was an opportunity to share his new discoveries on his second encounter, to talk about the state of higher education, and to wonder about the likely disappearance of the classics at a time when colleges turned increasingly toward vocationalism.

It’s also an attempt to do for high school teachers what Tracy Kidder did for elementary school teachers in Among School Children (1989), his account of the year that he spend with Christine Zajac, a 5th grade teacher in Mt Holyoke, Massachusetts. Both might be considered works of school anthropology.

In this most recent work, he spends a considerable amount of time with three teachers in three quite different high schools in the New York Metropolitan area. The teacher who gets the most attention is Sean Leon, a teacher of 10th graders at The Beacon School, a humanities-focused magnet school, though not one of the better known ones like Stuyvesant or Bronx Science, located in a shabby building on the West Side near Lincoln Center.

Beacon attracts many children of well-to-do professionals. But it also attracts impoverished but bright students from the outer boroughs. As he quickly discovers, the “rich kids” are not necessarily more informed or better motivated than are the others. The portraits of the students are finely drawn as Denby’s portrait of their dynamic teacher.

During 2012-2013, Denby pays many visits to Leon’s classroom, in part because Leon, given a great deal of flexibility in fleshing out the sophomore year “Individual and Society” curriculum theme, uses difficult 20th century text, some of which, like Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, appear on the Columbia University reading list. Other writers include Hawthorne, Orwell, Sartre, Huxley, Hesse, Vonnegut and Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankel. A large photo of Kafka, whose provocative sentences Leon writes on the board, hovers over the classroom.

Denby often wonders whether 15 year olds have enough life experience and are intellectually to read Sylvia Plath’s poems much less Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. And he wonders whether the forceful taskmaster has not sufficiently acknowledged the pleasure of reading as a vital goal. Denby has other small bones to pick: Shouldn’t there be a place for Shakespeare and other pre-20th century writers? Wouldn’t Primo Levi be a better choice than Frankel?

By the end of the year, after watching students rise to the challenge, though not without difficulty, he is converted. Denby comes to accept Leon’s belief that the 15 year old stands between childhood and adulthood and that there is no better way to assist their identity formation than through the study of engaging literature. The students’ discovery of their capabilities and voices are sources of pleasure as well as pride.

Denby admires Leon’s devotion to the simple principle that great works engage the mind and heart. Though he teaches the elements of literature and shows that an understanding of the way that fiction works is a key to what fiction says, this goal is subordinate to the question about the work: Is it real for you? Writing is integral to the class as are presentations. Just-in-time instruction in grammar and usage are provided and certain arbitrary rules meant for developing writers — never use a form of “to be” — are enforced.

An Alanis (singer Morrisette) assignment asks students to develop a parody of a popular communications genre. The Plath assignment calls for students to write their own confessional poem. The paper on dystopias calls forth comparisons of the prophetic books by Orwell and Huxley. Knowing that they are in a safe place, students are willing peer reviewers for paper drafts. The class places a premium on integration of skills and on developing the ability to provide context and connection.

But being a good course and assignment designer is not enough. What makes the Leon succeed is the love that he has for his charges. “Tough love” is an overused expression, but this is Leon’s approach. He has high expectations but cushions his demands by his personalization of instruction. He insists on creating a community of trust (perhaps another cliché) so that students are unafraid to reveal themselves to each other. Leon know how to use his own life story (the son of a father he never knew), his vulnerabilities (his older brother is dying in Louisiana during the Denby visit year), and his own complicated responses to non-course readings (other books on his nightstand) to best advantage. He eschews the touchy-feely approach, knowing full well that his tough urban kids would run him over. He has no interest in being his students’ friend.

Of the 15 chapters in the book (16 if you include summarizing “Note”), 13 are devoted to his year at The Beacon School. Two chapters are devoted to the public school in the affluent Westchester County village  of Mamaroneck. There the English department, with full administrative encouragement, has put in place a “choose your own reading” program and made ample space in the classroom for students to read their selections. Through the intercessions of creative teachers like Margaret Groninger, who helps students ladder their reading (that is, moving from one text to a more challenging one), the district believes that it is creating an enduring book culture by turning reluctant readers into willing ones.

Two chapters are devoted to the persistent and creative efforts of Jessica Zelinski who works at Hillhouse High, one of New Haven’s lowest performing schools. Zelinski turns her students, most from dysfunctional families — where fathers are absent, cash is tight, the world beyond is dangerous — into willing and able readers through month long discussions of and activities around standards like To Kill a Mockingbrid and provocative new works like A Long way Gone, Memories of a Boy Soldier, Ishmael Beah’s account as a teenage warrior in Sierra Leone. Another hymn to a gifted teacher battling difficult odds.

Denby is seriously worried that reading on screens is rewiring young brains and reducing even further the capacities of student to critically engage works like Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” one of Leon’s early-in-the-year selections. He accepts Leon’s challenge to his students to have a “device free weekend,” and discovers that his immersion into the world of the internet has reduced his attention span and increased his impatience when reading long works.

He cites the work of Sherry Turkle, the MIT Professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology, whose Reclaiming Conversations I have addressed in a previous blog. His observations of Leon’s students demonstrate that they do develop the ability to question and empathize with their classrooms. Denby’s recordings of high octane class discussions is a minor refutation of Mark Bauerlein’s charge that the ubiquity of technology has turned millennials into “the dumbest generation,” a generation unable to sustain a conversation much less an argument. Because most of Denby’s concerns have been more thoroughly addressed in works like Nick Carr’s The Shallows, these sections of the work can be passed over if you are familiar with these other explorations of the new media age.

Denby offers his report in an age when the STEM subjects are in ascendancy and quantitative evaluation through frequent testing is the norm. Between the descriptions of complex teachers and students and cogent summaries of the works that students are reading, Denby provides a full-throated proposal for the centrality of the humanities. He bemoans the fact that humanities teachers in college have turned to teaching post-modernist theory and ignored vital reader response approaches. He bemoans the fact that humanities teachers – with the exceptions of the Leons, Groningers and Zelinskis –have submitted too easily to the utilitarianism that drives curriculum and classroom practice. His observations of a variety of classrooms reinforces his belief that the humanities, when well taught, are the surest way to the development of a sound identity and life purpose. It’s the surest way to develop a healthy skepticism and the capacity for seeing the world from multiple perspectives. Furthermore, discussing literature in classrooms provides an immunization against the enervating viruses of Instagram and Candy Crush. [See my colleague George Miller’s recent post on the humanities.]

One final comment: Denby meets frequently with Leon at neighborhood coffee houses to talk about what he has observed in the classroom and to inquire into the reasons behind his choices for reading and classroom conduct. I think that teaching can be improved if administrators supported faculty efforts to visit one another’s classrooms outside of the review for promotion and tenure process. Though Denby was clearly the bigger beneficiary of his observations of Leon, I would like to think that Leon became even more committed by virtue of these encounters with Denby.


About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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