I hear this …quite a good deal. Unfortunately way too much. I assign a book for my community college students to read and they say, “I hate this book, Ms. Garcia.” Sometimes they say things like, “I don’t like this; it made me think about things.” Ah. Things. I used to feel a bit offended, but now I’ve been teaching 17 years. And I get what’s going on here.
My students aren’t really hating books. They hate hearing about anything that makes them think; they hate anything that points to a fact or truth of history that makes them uncomfortable.
If you point out anything that doesn’t make the United States seem perfect, you’re being treasonous. If you point to women suffering, people of color, well then you and the author just can’t get over it.
How did we reach this point of complete lack of empathy? Of always needing to look away?
And it’s generational. My older students, those brave women going back to college after a lifetime of other pursuits, they know. They have witnessed the savagery of living. For them literature in my class reconfirms their experience, gives it validity, backs them up.
But those young’uns look away. I try to remember back to when I was a freshmen. Did I go full-throttle into understanding, into reading or did I shy away because the subjects made me wince? And the subjects aren’t even that wince-y really.
I mean, kids– do you really think the life of new immigrants working the fields in the 1920s was going to be without issues? Can you really find fault with women having to have babies in the fields because no one would let them rest long enough to have them anywhere else? Their comments? I don’t like how this depicts white people. Why are white people always portrayed negatively? I don’t know. Maybe they should have let their workers use the restroom and not forced the women to have sex? Why don’t we ask the white men of the 1920s about that one, shall we? Go home and ask your great grandfather questions.
Can you really read about eyewitness accounts of police brutality and come up with an excuse for clubbing someone in the head and shooting them in the back? You can’t see the long line between Anne Deveare Smith’s Twilight Los Angeles and Ferguson?
Can you read accounts of relentless sexism and then claim it doesn’t exist? That you feel bad for Lidia Yuknavitch in Explicit Violence and are glad she’s better now and completely miss the point? Dude, She’s talking about our culture of violence. OUR CULTURE OF VIOLENCE. And they sit there as if it couldn’t possibly exist, even with bruises on their skins and their psyches.
This is the attitude of my young students. I gave them James Ellroy once. JAMES FUCKING ELLROY describing El Monte in My Dark Places and…nothing. Nada. Not a pulse. One little birdie “It sounds like he’s angry that he had to live there so why would he live there.” No fucking shit. Next.
Who told these kids that reading was just entertainment? That it’s sole purpose was to make one feel good and feel good about themselves? Whenever I go into a mainstream bookstore like the one in my town or a Barnes & Nobles to use the restroom I’m bombarded with the answer to that question. Try to find a real book in Epilogue Books in Quincy. Try to find one at a Barnes & Nobles anywhere. I dare you. It’s impossible. I mean maybe you’ll find a great quote on a ten dollar laminated bookmark, but that’s about it.
Is it any wonder Common Core wants to do a way with fiction if mainstream fiction is what people think fiction is? Just another way to celebrate mediocrity.
My college is about to choose a book in common. They will choose poorly. We already have white men commenting in code on how women’s voices are irrelevant as are people of color. Just choose the best book. Best book for whom? They don’t understand that that’s a question.
Finally, there is a movement in this country to move away from the teaching of fiction, history, and memoir literature in favor of science and technology–as if that’s going to make a nation of World of Warcraft players leave their bedrooms and foresake skating through life for a high paying tech job that a foreign student with promise and an HB1 visa could do in his sleep. We are biting off our nose to save our faces and telling them it’s okay–we can always buy them a nose job.
We need empathy. We need stories. We need to visit worlds we don’t know. They definitely need to visit worlds they don’t know. We need to own up to our culture as do they. They need to hate books until they learn to love them. And those books must be about real things. Real things that hurt. Real things that real.