Criticism of 'dangerous' school text ignores literature's role in learning
February 18, 2011
What better place to discuss tough issues than in a class with a teacher and peers?
A CONCERNED parent waves a volume of Graham Greene's short stories in the air at an emergency meeting. She cries that the book is the inspiration behind recent vandalism at the school, which included flooding the boys' bathroom. Looking for something to blame, the other parents offer up unanimous applause.
The offending story, which describes children flooding a house, has driven one of their children to crime. In the film Donnie Darko, there are actually complex reasons for the destructive actions of the teen hero, but the parents have little awareness of the issues and instead find an easier target in a story read in English class.
A recent article about the short-story collection Smithereens, which is being taught in some Victorian schools, sees a work of literature being similarly thrust in the air as a damaging influence on children. The collection of stories is designed for use in high schools to encourage reflection and response to short fiction, and has been in print with Oxford University Press since 1998.
The concerns raised by a parent at Berwick Secondary College rest on the subject matter of some of the stories, which include murder and suicide. Suicide has been highlighted because of fears it might be a trigger or suggestion that pushes teens towards ending their own lives.
The story about the suicide is accompanied by an exercise in which students are asked to imagine themselves in the situation of the protagonist and write a note to the character's parents and friend. This has been hyperbolised to a request to have teens "write practice suicide notes" in the classroom.
Children's literature is marked out for scrutiny by well-meaning parents, while children and teens themselves are immersed in a broader culture of violence and abuse. The school English curriculum needs to be viewed alongside the media and culture that most teens engage with regularly without adult mediation, such as violent games and films. Similarly, if teens view the news they will know of the prevalence of armed conflict, murder, rape, assault and drug abuse in our world. Indeed, many will have experience of family violence or addiction within their home. We live in a world in which these threats are real to children, and yet we feel outraged by the contents of a fictional story about suicide, as if the story is the dangerous thing.
If we think of childhood as a period of innocence, it does seem confronting that murder and suicide are discussed in the classroom. Never mind that we've all been exposed to such shocking plot developments if we've ever lumbered through Shakespeare in high school. But if we remember that teens are already aware of, and exposed to, the full gamut of problems that adults face, the discussion of a story in the safe setting of a classroom with a teacher and peers may play a vital role in allowing students to talk about issues they may not feel comfortable discussing with their parents.
Literature exists to expose us to different perspectives, to learn to challenge and critique what we think we know and to reflect on our own lives.
At times, this means encountering confronting views. For instance, Phillip Gwynne's novel Deadly, Unna?, awarded book of the year by the Children's Book Council, presents a disturbing picture of racism in Australia, which is coupled with sexist attitudes. When psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg calls Deadly, Unna? unsuitable for high-school reading lists, he ignores the expertise of teachers and would destroy the potential for students to analyse the viewpoints presented in the novel.
Child and, especially, teen readers are not sponges who absorb ideas from fiction without question. Classroom discussion and assessment tasks based on this book would invite students to think about racism and sexism, affording the opportunity to talk about these attitudes in society and informing student's ability to critique them. It would not simply infuse students with sexist attitudes.
Similarly, the idea that a fictional story about suicide will foster teen suicides ignores the potential of literature to encourage students to think carefully about issues such as depression and self-harm, to be willing to talk about them and to consider their implications.
Even the critiqued task, in which students are asked to write from the perspective of the troubled protagonist, invites teens to empathise with someone else's problems and consider the repercussions of the character's suicide on family members. As librarian Josh Westbrook has said, "Kids are living stories every day that we wouldn't let them read." In taking away the life-changing possibilities of exposure to challenging ideas in literature in the classroom, we leave students only with the real horrors of the world and offer them one less tool with which they might learn to deal with it.
Dr Michelle Smith is a researcher in literary studies at the University of Melbourne.