It used to be called the canon – the must-reads of Western literature that allegedly represent the best in creative writing and exploration of the human condition. At the very least, they represent the books and plays most written about by those who study literature. These books and their glaring absence from my children’s curriculums weighed heavily on my mind Thursday, after a fantastic kung fu workout in which I realized that I’m much more mentally aware of how to fix what I’m doing wrong in a form than I’m often conscious of. This incredible “Aha!” moment was juxtaposed to the awakening just an hour earlier that, academically, my kids don’t know nearly as much as I did at each of their ages – at least as far as literature is concerned.
It all started at dinner out with my son earlier this week. As we scarfed down Polish fare, he asked me to name great books for him. He hadn’t read any that I mentioned; more disturbingly, he hadn’t heard of a number of them either. I expressed my concern at the time, but concern turned to a mild form of ire yesterday when discovering that the syllabus for his senior year doesn’t include any canon books either. Silly me, I thought his teachers would patch up the curriculum in the final year.
My son attends a Jesuit school that’s geared toward providing a better education to children of urban, working class families who can’t afford private school. Now, I understand that there’s been a move in the last decade or so to get away from caring about the perspective of dead, white men and thereby make reading more appealing to the largely non-white student bodies of most of the public schools in America’s largest urban centers. However well-intentioned, this move seems to have all but eradicated from those same schools any trace of what used to be required reading no matter where one lived and what one looked like. If administrators remove from literature curriculums all but a few of the dead white guy favorites, we’re going to end up with a generation who, ten years from now, will immediately recognize and understand any reference to the “ice bucket challenge,” but who won’t have the slightest idea what grandma is talking about when she compares Johnny’s ill-advised pursuit of a person or thing to Ahab’s quest for the great white whale.
I remember as a kid watching a Bugs Bunny episode I’d seen dozens of times, listening to Bugs go into a riff about an apartment number that started with “2B or not 2B; that is the question” and understanding for the very first time that the Hamlet allusion is what made it funny. Something about that realization felt good, especially since I could go on to finish most of the monologue, at the time.
Does it matter in the grand scheme of things if today’s youth understand literary references? I can’t answer that. What I know is this: my children have excellent grades. But I’m not sure if their grades accurately reflect how much they know.
Not getting the joke may be no big deal. But not knowing what their grade point averages suggest they should could be huge.