Not too long ago, a colleague of mine had to leave school at the spur of the moment and asked me to take over her American literature class. I said of course and asked what they were reading. She hollered, "Thoreau" and dashed for the door.
"Wonderful," I thought. I love Thoreau and hadn't reread him for years. This afternoon was going to be fun.
Well, it would have been fun if we had been working with anything that remotely resembled Thoreau's writings. Instead of a coherent extended excerpt, the anthology the students were reading from offered snippets of Thoreau under headings like: "Solitude," "Nature," "Work." How could we discuss Thoreau's challenging ideas with only aphorisms to work from? I tried asking the discussion questions that followed each passage, but gave up when I couldn't figure out the answers either. There simply wasn't enough text to go on.
I told the students to close their books and allow me read to them from a copy of "Civil Disobedience" that, fortunately, I had brought along. One student asked if all the things they were reading in their textbook came from "real books like that."
I wanted to cry. Thoreau-lite is worse than no Thoreau at all.
For many schools and teachers, anthologies make both economic and educational sense. New teachers should not be expected to construct a course in American literature from whole cloth. Anthologies also provide teachers with valuable background information and offer good ideas for extended readings.
My complaint is with the selections. I hate excerpts. One anthology actually published only the first third of a play. Huh? Why would anyone who cares about literature do such a thing?
Did the editor anticipate that students would go out and buy a copy of the play to find out what happens next? Even given the limitations of a student's available reading time and a publisher's page space, works of literature should not be carved up.
The introduction to the 1901 Ginn & Co. sixth-grade literature textbook asserts that, "Literature in its noblest form should do for the child what it does for the man - open the eyes to clearer vision, and nourish and inspire the soul. The reading book, therefore, has more direct influence upon the character of the pupil than any other textbook, and, with this in mind, it has been the fundamental purpose of this series to make its readers familiar with the best writers and their works. These selections have been somewhat abridged, but it has been thought wiser to have them a little longer than many textbooks introduce, rather than to mar the symmetry and beauty of the author's work." One hundred years later, a similar philosophy should guide our textbook choices.
I don't want my students to know only who Henry David Thoreau is in order to be able to identify him correctly on a cultural-literacy quiz. I want them to spend time at Walden Pond and become enthralled with Thoreau's intoxicating ways of thinking. They will never be able to do this unless we hand them the whole book.
*Carol Jago teaches English at Santa Monica High School and directs the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society