Today, the fantastic Maureen Johnson linked to this article, the latest in the attacks on what kids are reading. The author’s argument is…odd, to say the least, especially for an educator of at-risk youth. The first thing that struck me was how this article was simply dripping with disdain for his students. Obviously, I don’t know Nazaryan or really know anything about him, but if I were to base my view solely on this one article I would guess that not only did he not understand his students, but he felt he was above them. This is not an appropriate attitude for a teacher to have. It’s a pretty harmful one, in fact. His disdain for his students isn’t the point of the article, however. He compounds this harmful attitude with the opinion that (with the apparent exception of Sappho) long-dead, white, male authors are the only ones worthy of reading. To quote:
We need less Myers and more Homer – and not in Cambridge and Oxford, but in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Southside Chicago. …Do I congratulate myself? Very well, I congratulate myself. I hit upon an idea – with plenty of help from my colleagues at the Brooklyn Latin School – and I want others to emulate it. I want them to put away the Walter Dean Myers and dust off Homer, Virgil, Sappho, all of Beard’s bemoaned lot.
I have two problems with this stance. First, while I agree that teaching classic and “literary” literature should be a part of the high school curriculum, why must primarily works by privileged white men be all that’s taught? There was no mention of the myriad of excellent writing by authors of color, authors without privilege, or other female authors. This could have been merely an oversight on his part instead of intentional, of course, but wouldn’t an English teacher who really valued those other works have made sure to mentioned them? Academia has a history of ignoring minority and female writers, but many schools are attempting to remedy this. Instead, it seems Nazaryan would have us move in the other direction. This would be bad enough in a school full of upper-class white students, but to do so in a school full of underprivileged minority students it’s pretty shameful. Actually, you know what, no. It’s shameful in either case. All students should be exposed to a variety of authors and their viewpoints, not just those of the privileged white male. By telling students that white males are the only authors worth reading, he’s telling every one of them who isn’t a white male that their own opinions and contributions and experiences are somehow less.
My second problem is with his view that young adult literature that mirrors the lives of the students is not worth reading. As I’ve written before, I believe that YA literature can and should hold an important place in the classroom. Since I’ve covered it recently, I won’t expound on that view again here, but, suffice it to say, his view that non-classic literature is not worth reading does not improve my opinion of his argument.
He also espouses the idea that literature’s sole purpose is to elevate. He says:
I think that because I am an unashamed, unapologetic believer that the purpose of literature is to elevate. Not to entertain, to problematize or to instruct, but to take what Hamlet called our “unweeded garden” and revel in its thorns. Not to make the world pretty, but to make it true, and by making it true, make it beautiful. All real art is high art.
This, in essence, makes him a literary snob. Having been an English major at a small liberal arts college, I am very familiar with this particular brand of literary snob. Now, despite disagreeing with their opinion, them holding said opinion isn’t a problem. Having high standards or preferring a certain type of literature is perfectly valid. To each his own. However, when that opinion is thrust upon another, particularly students who are still trying to form their own opinions, that’s when it becomes a problem. Nazaryan wasn’t lamenting that his students weren’t reading. He was pointing out that they were reading the “wrong” types of literature. Wrong, of course, being determined by his own standards. Standards which are seemingly based not on educational value, but by personal opinion.
The other problem with this is that he doesn’t seem to realize all that’s contradictory in his claim. He states that the purpose of literature is not to entertain, but then uses the fact that it entertained his students as reason for his methods to be valid. He claims that it shouldn’t instruct, but seems unaware that much of the classic literature he loves did have instructional purposes. He wants literature to make the world true, but doesn’t understand that the classics aren’t the only works that can do that. He seems to have a very narrow view of what is the truth of the world. Why couldn’t the truth of the world be the one the students are experiencing? Why shouldn’t they be allowed to read about their own truth instead of his? Why should their experiences be silenced, while those he believes are right are emulated?
One of the most common complaints of young non-white readers is the dearth of literature that imitates their own lives and experiences. I’ve heard and read time and time again of complaints by readers that there aren’t enough narrators that look, sound, or act like them. If there are books by a well-respected, award-winning writer that the students not only relate to, but devour, who is Nazaryan or anyone to tell them that they shouldn’t be reading them? That they’re not worthy? I am of the opinion that any reading is good reading. The fact that the students – some of whom, as he said, had “a 5-year-old’s command of the English language” – were reading at all is what’s important. To try to stop them from doing so simply because he thought the books they were reading were “insipid” (And really? Insipid? Is he serious?) is irresponsible. Encouraging them to expand their horizons and exposing them to more difficult literature is one thing. But claiming that it should only the classics and nothing else is ridiculous. Why can’t it be both? Why can’t a student enjoy Virgil and Meyer? Why couldn’t he, as a teacher and authority figure, show his students that literature is a diverse field to be explored and enjoyed, instead of yet another clique filled with only the “right” people?
I’ve not doubt that Nazaryan had the best intentions, but that doesn’t excuse his misguided viewpoint. I admire his drive to push his students to go beyond what was expected and beyond their situations, but, unfortunately, his methods in doing so just took them out of one box and put them in another.