Monday, August 23, 2010

Why I am not teaching The Catcher in the Rye ever again

I have an important confession to make. I've seen others make this confession and it seems to have been a very cathartic experience for them. So I join the chorus: I hate The Catcher in the Rye. The book is (excuse my use of my students' slang) ass. I am aware that people find Salinger's description of the inner minds of children to be particularly compelling. I am aware that some folks relate to his characters. However, even at 16 when I first read Catcher, I wanted to punch Holden Caulfield in his whiny, over-privileged face.

It is easy to see why this book is so often taught. We can point it out as an example of a book that people have tried to censor (a topic that too many teachers spend too much time discussing). We can use it as a prime example of symbolism and motif. We can use it to let our hair down and have the word "fuck" spoken aloud within our otherwise well-ordered classroom. And since we remember kids liking it when we were younger, we can use it as a way to show our students that "literature isn't always boring."

But it just doesn't live up to its own hype.

Holden is a frustrated child in a relatively decent world. This does not resonate with today's youth. Kids today see plenty of reason to be pissed off and can direct their anger at real world issues. While it is nice for those who have lost a loved one to read a character who is also grieving, most of my students see much in the world that deserves their anger and frustration. Their angst is generally leveled at actual problems that may be solvable.

Even Holden's issues with connecting to his peers do not resonate well any more. Our students, no matter how boxed up they seem in school, are much better at finding like-minded peers than we were. Sure, there are still some that are totally disconnected from others their age, but these students are few and far between. For them, I will keep a few copies of Catcher in my classroom for them to stumble across. For everyone else, it is not the quality of their peers, or even the compatibility of their peers that is the issue. It is managing their image with their peers and trying to sustain meaningful interactions. These are not Holden's problems.

As a child in the early 1950's, Holden feels ignored by adults, and passed over by his culture. His worldview seems vastly different from those around him. In the real world, since the late 1960's youth culture has been central in the general popular American culture. Our students see their values and concerns expressed in media all the time. Even those outliers who do not completely agree with all of the tenants of American culture see people openly expressing disagreement. Our students already understand that they do not have to think like everyone else. This is not a point that we must make, and make, and make.

Perhaps Holden's biggest issue is his lack of a place to acceptably vent his frustration with the world. Thankfully, his bottled up frustration is totally incomprehensible to most of our students. Now we have the Internet, a place where people can and do go to complain. Children (and adults) have the opposite problem today. We complain so much to such like minded people that we don't have anyone left to tell us to clam up from time to time.

I fully respect teachers who wish to continue the mythology of The Catcher in the Rye. If you love it, read it. If you really love it, suggest it to your students. If you respect your students, please, please, please do not teach it. Please, please, please find a more contemporary bildungsroman that more directly addresses the issues actually experienced by our actual students. Find one that uses their language. The word "fuck" twice is not exciting any more. Even better, find many such books and let the students pick the one they want to read. Let them suggest some. Coming-of-age stories are the books that most of your students read a bit on their own anyway. Let's teach something better.

I feel better now.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

I think there's a tendency for teachers to teach the books that were taught to them, and Catcher does have a heck of a following. Plus, it's a pretty easy book to teach. But while maybe our lit teachers, or their teachers, might have related to the book when it came out, I agree that it's pretty much time to move on; there are plenty of alienation and rebellion books out there just as well written that also deserve to be taught. American literature is way too diverse to entertain the thought of having a traditional canon, which Catcher is sitting comfortably in. Bring on the Junot, while he's still relevant.

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