A Separate Doom: Summer Reading Lists

I am having a dilemma. Well, maybe not a dilemma so much as a full-blown crisis of the highest order. My 13-year-old son doesn’t like to read. I am a writer. I love books. And my son does not.

Tonight, we talked about his reading list for the summer. The eighth grade looms large on the horizon. The reading list is long; the requirements from that list rather short. My son needs to read two books.

Two books? I asked him.

Two books, dad.

So, like any good parent I went to the school’s web site. Sure enough. He’s required just two titles from the list. Just when I had lost faith in the public school system I saw one of my favorites on the list:

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Even after all these years I am still in awe of Cather’s sentence structure; to say nothing of her use of description and character relationships. Sadly, my son was having none of it.

The other book he eyeballed tonight was A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah.

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An aficionado of all things xBox and Call of Duty-related, my son of course was enticed by the cover: a boy with an AK-47 assault rifle over his shoulders. Soon, however, my son was dismayed to find out that boys about his age found themselves fighting wars in various parts of the world; some ‘voluntarily’ and others forced into committing the reprehensible acts documented in the media.

We still have to pick a second book. I cringed when my son found the story line to John Knowles’ A Separate Peace appealing.

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Of course, I didn’t let him see me cringe. That would be bad. But I seem to remember stumbling through that book in my adolescence. Later, as an adult, I found out why. It was no small wonder that I stumbled over awkward sentences like “I felt that I was not, never had been and never would be a living part of this overpoweringly solid and deeply meaningful world around me.”

The bonus, if there was one in reading Knowles, is that it ranks above an eighth grade reading level on the scale his school uses. If my son chooses to slog his way through A Separate Peace this summer; if he can navigate his way through sentences and phrases that are as awkward as the conversations my son is having with girls his age; my penance will be to see my way through this book too. All things considered, however, I’d much rather spend time getting reacquainted with Antonia or visit Ishmael Beah in Sierra Leone for the first time along with my son.

Learning, Freedom, Thinking, and Rebellion

It’s like Obrienwriter suddenly channeled Camus, Sartre, or some other equally dreadful French Existentialist. Admit it. That’s what you’re thinking when you read the title. Fear not. This isn’t a discourse that will put you to sleep. This is a discourse about a young guy named Jeff Bliss and our current education system.

A friend of mine posted this video on Facebook first. Sure it’s not your run of the mill “isn’t my kid swell” video or another “Annoyed Picard” meme, but it is something that more young people should be doing: demanding a decent education.

While trolling the internet tonight after watching this video I found some others about Jeff Bliss. You can find them too. I also read some news articles like one out of Dallas in which a reporter was calling for Bliss to apologize. The reporter also maintains that the teacher did nothing wrong. I wasn’t in the classroom. Neither was the rest of America. When we see videos on the internet or on television we are seeing only a tiny fraction of the truth.

But enough about media manipulation. This is about education!

After not much research at all I learned two things. One, Jeff Bliss dropped out of school and returned recently. Two, his mother is a school teacher. I won’t try to reconcile why the son of teacher gets to drop out of school in Texas. What I will say is that young Mr. Bliss evidently wasn’t learning much when he was there in the first place.

After much soul-searching, I recently returned to graduate school. This time to pursue a degree in secondary education. So it goes without saying (even though I’m going to write it here anyway) that the case of Mr. Jeff Bliss intrigued me.

I’ve been reading lately about pedagogy, cultural hegemony, and the ever-present struggle school districts face with standardized testing and curricula that “teach to the test.” Someone, perhaps a whole bunch of people, decided not long ago that in order to catch up to the rest of the world in academic standards our education system needed to push memorization over all else as means for learning. They were wrong. Our schools haven’t gotten any better. In fact, don’t take my word for it. Go find that charming little read by Shame of the Nation by Jonathan Kozol or any other doom-and-gloom narratives about the state of our current education system. Many education specialists have their own theories about what needs to be done. Many of them have good ideas. And almost all of them are in agreement that yes it is naive to think of public schools operating separately from government involvement and that a curriculum is needed in schools. So, what’s all this have to do with the powers that be who mandate policy?

A young man like Mr. Bliss speaks out in class (and out of turn, too) and attempts to school his teacher on what needs to be done. Was it the best platform to get his message across? Probably not. Did Mr. Bliss exercise more intestinal fortitude, as my father used to say, than most of us at his age regarding his education? You bet.

What bothers me most about the case of Jeff Bliss is this: here’s a kid who clearly understands that something is amiss in the system by which he’s to be educated; here’s someone honestly voicing what he thinks education should be about (reaching hearts, if memory serves me) and what it is not (passing out flyers). And what happens now? He’s branded as a troublemaker. He’s painted as a rebellious sod who should prostrate himself before his teacher and beg for forgiveness. It’s ludicrous.

At one point in the video Jeff Bliss points to his classmates and talks about his peers being the future of America. There are many questions that this story calls into light. Do we want to admonish young people for taking a stand? Or do we want our youth to fall into step with whatever the powers that be deem appropriate? Are we to assume that Jess Bliss is an anomaly? The sole student in all of America who cares about his education? Or are there others out there who just needed to hear someone else say it first? Others who will step forward and let their voice be heard too?

Each year it seems fewer students are being taught to think for themselves. If one is not able to think critically about an issue or subject, he is not capable of challenging the status quo. Yes, our nation continues to lag behind in education. But this dilemma is not just between young people like Jeff Bliss, teachers, school boards, and education policy makers. We can’t point to one particular group to blame. This is about all of us.

We allow our children to stay up too late, we upset the order of their lives with divorce and other drama, we feed them shit food when we feed them at all, we don’t take the time we should to read with them, we allow Xbox and other video game consoles to rule their lives; some may even count on these machines to babysit their kids. In doing so, we allow these distractions to rob them of their imaginations. When I tell my son how I used to play outside everyday he looked at me and asked: what for? We as a people think that this way of life is somehow okay as we cart them to after-school activity to after-school activity and weekend activities too; all the while thinking that this will somehow make them better human beings.

The danger in all this is that, as parents, family, and community members, we continue to allow our school systems to churn out teens who are incapable of reading between the lines, who are ill-suited to take a stand against any wrongdoing. And this is not anything new. If we stay the current course, freedom in society will become a non-issue because no one will recognize it or, worse, have any need for it.

Jeff Bliss will be painted as an outsider, a hell raiser, a loose cannon who doesn’t have all his facts straight; be that as it may he got one thing right. Learning and education are about the students; not teachers and salaries, not school boards, not standardized testing, and certainly not the endless shuffling of funds between districts based in part on how well a group of students can remember something long enough to pencil in answers on a sheet that will be graded by a computer. More students should take up the cause and fight for what is right where their education is concerned. All of us need to listen.