[Must students and teachers like everything they read in class? Bard MAT graduate Matthew Denvir explores this question and discusses the benefits of teaching students why it is okay, and even good, to dislike certain books. Matthew graduated from the Bard MAT program in 2011. He currently lives in Virginia Beach where he teaches English, Creative Writing, and Global Media Analysis at Tallwood High School. Follow him on Twitter @TheRealMrDenvir.]
My students often ask a variation of the following question: “Did you choose this book?” The Tempest, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm. Did I choose these? Why? Reasons for asking vary. Some hate the book. Some love it. Some are curious about the process of teaching and creating curriculums. I usually give them a stock answer about curricular conformity, book-room availability, and grade-level expectations. I want to convey that books have value even if they’re not our favorites, that good readers—including students and teachers of literature—should always interrogate the quality of a book. But maybe I should be more honest with them. Maybe I should tell them, when applicable, “No. I hate this book.”
I imagine this is not shocking to fellow English teachers. We know that we sometimes have to teach books we hate. Julius Caesar is a popular target (“It goes nowhere interesting after the third act”), as is The Scarlet Letter (“I find it as boring as they do”) and Thoreau’s Walden (for this one, my colleague just did the finger-in-mouth puking gesture).
This is not to say we don’t love the field. Of course we do. Great teachers often have a contagious passion for their subject. But while we may love capital-L Literature, we don’t always love the literature of English class. I learned this lesson in 2016, when I started teaching Ayn Rand’s Anthem. I learned it’s okay to teach a book I don’t like. More than that, I learned it can be a good and valuable experience for students when the books we teach are not held up as objects of our praise and worship.
But First: We Need to Talk About Ayn Rand
If you are curious about Rand’s ideas but have a weight limit on your backpack, her slim Anthem is the place to start. At about one hundred pages, it’s a breezy and admittedly enjoyable summation of her talking points. The story involves a dystopia in which people are stripped of all individuality and free will, an imposition that has halted the advancement of knowledge and scientific progress. People in the society do not know the words “I” and “me,” making for an interesting narrative voice in which the book’s speaker refers to himself as “we.” Useless government bureaucracy abounds. For example, upon learning of electricity, the Council of Scholars rejects the technology on the grounds it would bring ruin to the “Department of Candles.” The narrative arc follows Equality 7-2521—named, like all other characters, with an ideal followed by a serial number—as he discovers his individuality, breaks free from oppressive collectivism, and gains knowledge from old world books. By the end, he learns “I.”
The story is engaging, but the preachy themes are troublesome. Another diplomatic word for the book’s message might be controversial, but many may find its themes odious. The protagonist’s discovery of self comes seemingly at the expense of all empathy. “I do not surrender my treasures, nor do I share them,” he says at one point of revelation (95). At another, “I owe nothing to my brothers, nor do I gather debts from them” (96). One crucial part of the plot involves Equality 7-2521’s invention of the light bulb, which he presents to the government as a way to improve society. Upon the invention’s rejection, however, he admits, “We have not built this box for the good of our brothers. We built it for its own sake” (76).
This is some radical stuff, stuff that might make even the staunchest right-winger a bit uneasy. Anthem isn’t about finding your strength and putting it to good use; Anthem is about bettering yourself with no altruistic regard for others. If you help others, in Rand’s way of thinking, you do so only because you benefit in some way from the help. There is no obligation to be a contributing member of society. “To be free, a man must be free of his brothers,” Rand writes. “That is freedom. This and nothing else” (101). It’s an odd message to be teaching in a public school, a place where we strive to build community, support each other’s success, and work towards common goals—all paid for with taxes, of course. And, aside from the oddity, it’s just disconcerting. Do we really want to teach adolescents to disregard the needs of others, to focus merely on self?
But Students Love It (at first)
In one class, when I asked students if they’d heard of Ayn Rand or her ideas, a student mentioned a T-shirt bearing the quote: “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” Though attributed to Rand, this quote is inaccurate; she never said or wrote this. But the fact that the student liked the shirt illuminates why Rand is so appealing to high school students.
Rand has moxie. She has chutzpah. She makes a coherent philosophy of narcissism, and teenagers, going through the well-documented phase in which identity is asserted and self-concern trumps most else, latch onto Rand’s ideas with glee. Who’s to blame them? They are in the process of constructing identities in a world they find increasingly difficult and confusing; to read an author who intelligently makes the case that you are strong and self-reliant and you can do this will feel affirming. The revelatory narration in Anthem comes after Equality 7-2521 discovers singular pronouns. “I am. I think. I will,” he says (94). To fifteen year-olds, anxious about their role in a social world, these sentences have profound meaning.
Students also like Rand’s language, which is direct but elevated, with a tone whose straight-faced seriousness makes Hemingway look like Dave Barry. Characters do not talk like real people; they talk like mythic figures out of an epic poem or fairy tale, with language reveling in its own grandiosity—repetition, references to “the gods,” heavy allusion to the Western canon, anachronistic use of “shall,” etc. To high school students (so my theory goes), this seriousness strikes a chord. Their understanding of and concern for self is not frivolous or inconsequential. They care deeply about themselves, and they are moved by a novel that treats the subject of self with a reverence bordering on religiosity.
In teachers’ lounge conversations, my colleagues have confirmed the broader argument of my theory, if not exactly the particulars. It’s well known that high school students love Anthem.
In Which I Start to Push Them
The class discussions about Rand started to seem too one-sided. It’s not that I minded my students’ appreciation of the text; I just wanted to start a critical conversation about what this book was really telling us. This should not be specific to books we find problematic. We should encourage a healthy analytical distance no matter the book we teach.
To do this, I use questioning strategies that focus on author’s purpose over plot, theme, literary techniques, etc. Rand herself becomes the focal point around which our conversations exist. We no longer discuss the book’s ideas; we discuss her ideas as conveyed through the book.
Practical Suggestion: to get your students to develop deeper-level, critical thinking skills about texts, use authors’ names as much as possible. Change your lexicon to make clear you are discussing a real person’s ideas, not those of an abstract authorial figure. For example, instead of asking, “What does this passage show?” ask, “What is Hawthorne showing us in this passage?” Instead of “How is Ralph depicted in this scene?” use, “How does Golding depict Ralph in this scene?” You get the idea.
The first opportunity to challenge my increasingly Rand-loving students comes about seven days into the unit. We conduct a seminar in which students respond to guided questions posted on the board. Students are given some time to prepare answers with textual support and commentary before joining a class-wide discourse on the topic. The first question, after referring to the quote (supra) in which Equality 7-2521 admits he created the light bulb for its own sake, asks: What does this change of heart show about the narrator? What does it show about Ayn Rand’s ideas regarding selfishness?
Dutifully, students begin to talk about the importance of creativity, of giving remarkable individuals the space to innovate. I push back, just a little. Is it troublesome that our hero expressly does not want to help his “brothers”? That he does not create or innovate for any moral purpose, but just does so to do so? Can this be a problem? Some students take the bait. Discussion moves to why people should do work and how society could benefit from those who merely want to achieve. Fair enough.
The discussion moves along until we get to our final question, which refers to the penultimate chapter, in which our narrator didactically espouses his newfound ideas about individualism (didactic espousing being a kind of Rand staple). In this chapter, you’ll find Anthem’s greatest hits: “My happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose.”; “I am neither foe nor friend to my brothers, but such as each of them shall deserve of me.”; “What is my joy if all hands, even the unclean, can reach into it?”; “I am done with the monster of ‘We,’ the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood and shame ” (95-97). Etc. I ask students: Do you agree with what the narrator says in this chapter? Or do you think he has gone too far? How could Rand’s ideas help society? Or how could they hurt it?
These questions seem to be less revelation than permission. Students begin to disagree with Rand’s ideas in Anthem, some passionately so. Debates break out. Some students remark that they have hated this book the whole time, which leads to an honest question I have: Do students feel they have to like the books they read in school? If so, that’s a problem. Students cannot become good critical thinkers if they assume they must like what they are learning.
Why This Is Important
The ability to argue with a text is becoming an increasingly important skill in the 21stcentury. Today’s students will read and view more “texts” than any previously, and many of these new texts deserve a level of scrutiny they are not getting. Social media provides users with a deluge of information, much of it designed to be consumed with little to no thought given to the purveyors of that information. Gallons of ink have already been spilled on the social effects of this—worldview bubbles, proliferation of fake news, simplification of complex issues—so no sense retreading that ground here. But think of the typical high school student scrolling through Instagram. Each post is a text, whether a picture, aphorism, or meme. It should concern one to imagine a complacent recipient of these un-vetted texts. We know that even a tweet from the U.S. President can espouse a gross un-truth. Therefore, a more skeptical student, one more able to see and argue with the “author,” should be less easily swayed by pithy, inaccurate memes.
That said, let us not make the mistake of thinking the World Wide Web is the only source of troubling texts. The very texts we teach, canon or not, are often just as deserving of a critical eye. After four years in literature classes, a typical American high school student will have read a number of books that, while arguably great art, perpetuate problematic or outdated ideas about race, culture, gender, and class. Take William Golding’s Lord of the Flies as an example, a staple in the typical high school English class. There is an important discussion to be had about the characters’ associating indigenousness with savage immorality. “Which is better,” Piggy asks Jack at one point, “to be a pack of painted Indians like you are, or to be sensible like Ralph is?” (180). Perhaps there is a nuanced way to understand what is expressed here; perhaps the boys’ conflation of “painted Indians” with immorality is part of their uniquely English folly. Or maybe the book is just racist. Either way, the conversation is not an easy one to have. It’s made easier, however, if we encourage students to see the author.
My tenth grade students encounter this representational hurdle when we read and perform Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The play is perhaps most conventionally seen as Shakespeare’s farewell to his craft, but contemporary readers cannot ignore the colonialist relationship between Prospero and Caliban. Prospero today seems like a colonizer, taking over Caliban’s island and exploiting both the land and its sole inhabitant. Caliban resents this: “(I) showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle, / The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile. / Cursed be I that did so!” (1.2.404-406). Prospero, in return, makes an accusation that, today, seems loaded with racial and cultural implications: he accuses Caliban of trying to rape Miranda, Prospero’s daughter. “Would ‘t had been done!” Caliban responds, “Thou didst prevent me. I had peopled else / this island with Calibans” (1.2.419-421). Caliban spends the rest of the play plotting to murder Prospero before learning his lesson, his rightful place.
Considering the play’s geography, it’s not a stretch to imagine Caliban as an African, an interpretation offered by director Julie Taymor, who cast Djimon Hounsou, an African actor, in the part for a 2010 film. But this is beside the point. African or not, Caliban is presented as the uncivilized indigenous being whereas Prospero is the civilized European. This dynamic is troubling and needs to be addressed when teaching the play. But, as with Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this conversation will prove difficult if students are not made to see author.
For example, I could ask my students: Why does Caliban try to rape Miranda? They may respond that Caliban is monstrous (he is scaly and fishlike), that he is naturally vicious and cruel. In an attempt to get students to analyze Elizabethan views about non-Europeans, I may bring up questions about Caliban’s nature as it relates to his non-European status. But, without building this discussion around author, the conversation could become vague and dangerous (e.g. “Is Mr. Denvir saying non-Europeans are natural rapists?” type thing). It is sometimes difficult for students to remember that characters in a fiction are total creations of another human being. So when we talk about why Caliban acts a certain way, we are not analyzing a person who exists in the real world; we are analyzing a fictive representation of an author’s ideas about how the world works.
To put it simply, don’t ask students, “Why is Caliban monstrous?” Instead, ask, “Why does Shakespeare make Caliban monstrous?” This way, students will make inferences about the author’s intent and purpose. Some will stand up for the author and offer interpretations that treat Shakespeare generously. “Sure, Caliban is monstrous,” they’ll say, “But Shakespeare wants us to see that his anger towards Prospero is justified.” Others will be less forgiving: “If Shakespeare wants us to sympathize with Caliban, why does Caliban need to learn a lesson in the end?”
Such conversations are crucial for this text and others, since otherwise students may unconsciously internalize the prejudices of an author. To be critical thinkers, students need to feel comfortable disagreeing with and even hating the authors they read. This may be hard for some English teachers to stomach—the idea that we shouldn’t even put William Shakespeare on a pedestal—but good literary thinking requires students to truly see authors not as icons, but as flesh and blood people with ideas deserving of investigation. This way, they can formulate and strengthen their own ideas about literature and the world. They’ll be more passionate and more articulate about the books they read in school.
In my own teaching, I have found that, when I remove the author from the discussion or try to convince students that the text has merit, the conversations become confusing and difficult. But when I encourage student inferences about what the author may be doing, and allow students to voice their opinions about whether or not the author is successful in doing so, students are more engaged and the focus of our discussions is clearer.
In the End, What Did Students Think?
After our Anthem unit, student opinions about the book were mixed and nuanced. In a survey given to the class, 77% of students said they enjoyed reading the novel. However, only 37% said they agreed with Rand’s ideas regarding individualism. In written responses, many students mentioned their appreciation of literary aspects—prose style, character, plot—but their disagreement with thematic ones. “I liked the story itself, but I didn’t like her ideas on individualism,” wrote one student. “I liked the book, but I didn’t agree about everything she wrote about,” said another.
Very few students responded that they unreservedly liked the book’s message, but a number expressed appreciation for getting to see Rand’s perspective. “Although I do not agree 100% with her,” wrote one respondent, “I opened up to a new way of thinking and I feel like I might have figured out something more about who I am as a person.” Another said, “I liked Anthem because it showed a different perspective that I would never consider seeing.”
It is a sign of good literary thinking to appreciate certain aspects of a text while expressing reservations about others. In order to hone this ability in students, teachers must show students how to see and analyze the author.
We English teachers should strive to cultivate a classroom environment in which the aggregate student response to a text is nuanced, considered, complex, but also divergent. If some of my students hated Anthem, I hope they hated it passionately rather than passively. And if they liked the book, I hope their enjoyment was thoughtful rather than thoughtless.
Some English teachers may believe it is their duty to make students appreciate the texts they read in class. Such teachers have good intentions but are, in my view, wrong-headed. Don’t get me wrong; the canon abounds with literary treasure. But we shouldn’t teach students to love texts so much as we should teach them to love the act of reading itself.
Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. Penguin Books, 2006.
Rand, Ayn. Anthem. Penguin Books, 1961.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. The Folger Shakespeare Library, 2009.