Before you read this post, go read this article. It’s not that long, fairly thought provoking, and is the subject of this entire post. So yeah, pretty important you’ve read it to understand this post at all. It’ll also be very helpful if you’ve read The Road by Cormac McCarthy. If you haven’t, go read that too. Not quite as short, but an even better read.
So, got both of those? Good. Let’s jump in.
My gut reaction when someone says, “Let’s teach The Road in schools,” is a very torn one. On one hand, I’m jubilant. I love the book. I want to yell “Yes, yes, bring this into class immediately!” But on the other hand, I have a deathly fear of literature classes, particularly high school literature classes. There were some books I had to read for class that I enjoyed, but in my experience we always spent way too much time talking about themes and symbols and all the complex philosophy that was evidently the purpose behind these books. Even the good ones like 1984 or The Screwtape Letters were nearly ruined by an emphasis on overanalysis, or at least the wrong sort of analysis. I’ve written on this some before. Hell, I more or less built my college major on the idea. But that’s somewhat beside the point.
The point, I suppose, is that The Road is a great book, a book that embodies the paradox of complexity and simplicity occupying the same space. I want high school kids reading good books, but I’m also terrified that the classroom will ruin them for students. So with that, let’s get into Lucas Flanagan’s article and see why he thinks teaching The Road is a good idea.
#5 – It Defines Our Humanity
Oooh we have a scary one right out of the gate. Flanagan spends this reason talking about the messages we need to teach our children (aka themes) and the symbolic significance of the phrase in the novel “Carrying the fire.” For clarity’s sake, I think neither themes nor symbols are bad things. They’re pretty important to storytelling in any medium, and the significance of stories would be limited without them. They’re worth exploring. But they’re not all that a story is.
I remember essay after essay I had to write in high school about the significance of the letter “A” in The Scarlet Letter or the green light in The Great Gatsby. I can just imagine an English teacher assigning a prompt on “Carrying the fire.” See, the symbol works in the book because it’s a subtle thing. Ephemeral even. It’s a tangible phrase to the characters, but it’s not something that points to a specific higher meaning for them. When you get right down to it, it’s a way for a father to explain to his son why they can’t interact with the more violent people around them. For the reader, it points to something essential to human dignity, but it barely approaches defining exactly what that is. That’s because the symbol is only a piece of the whole. But make a kid write an essay on stuff like this, and they start looking at the book only through these parts. I know I did that. What’s the essay question going to be about? What pages might make good references? Who cares about the rest of the book!
Wrapped up in this objection is a call to start teaching high school literature differently, but that’s not really the discussion I want to get into here. Suffice it to say that I quite agree The Road does speak powerfully to the nature of humanity, but that truth is found far more in the experience of the book as a whole than by parsing bits of it.
#4 – It Promotes Classroom Participation
Again, I find myself torn on the argument made here. Yes, classroom participation is a good thing, and I firmly believe the best way to teach Shakespeare is to read it aloud. But then again (excluding his poetry) Shakespeare wrote plays. He wrote works that were intended to be delivered aloud and interactively and with drama. Reading Shakespeare silently detracts from the telling. Shakespeare is hard to read, or so the adage goes. How much easier is it to understand the poetry when action and inflection inform the context of those words. Sparse as The Road may be, it is still a novel. That’s not to say it can’t be read aloud, but it’s intended to work just as well silently. I like the point about sparking discussion over differences in interpretation, but I wonder if a cacophony of voices doesn’t also harm the artistry of the bleak haunting beauty of the book read in isolation.
#3 – It’s More Useful and Timely to Today’s Students
I actually agree with this one full stop. One of the major impediments to the enjoyment of literature in today’s classrooms is the history lesson that must come along with it. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t read old books or try to understand old books. Les Miserables, now over 150 years old, is one of my all time favorite books, and to really get what’s going on you need to know a little about the revolutionary climate of early- to mid-19th century France. But that’s not even what I’m talking about. Often enough kids run into problems because the characters in the book they’re reading do something they find stupid. There’s a different set of cultural expectations in Ivanhoe or The Merchant of Venice, and the characters behave accordingly. But often that’s not immediately comprehensible to someone not conversant in the norms of the time. Again, for clarity: not saying we should eschew interdisciplinarity nor that we should abandon truly great works of literature to the passing of time, only that we should be sensitive to the added difficulty, and at times lesser reward, of reading such works.
#2 – It’s Mature But Not Too Mature
Again, nail on the head on this point, kudos to Mr. Flanagan. The Road does what great books do: it employs mature content like violence for a purpose, not for the glorification or spectacle of the act. The Road is without question the most depressing book I’ve ever read; it’s also one of the most beautiful. Something that’s been largely missing from this discussion is any talk of craft. McCarthy is a master wordsmith, but he also knows how to use his story elements. Writing craft, storytelling craft is a subject that’s too often overlooked, but McCarthy provides what is in many ways an ideal case study here.
#1 – It Has A (Pretty Good) Film Adaptation For Further Analysis
“A nice reward for students after finishing the hard work”? Are you serious! Oh, how I seethed when I saw this one. I love books. I love movies. A very few stories are told well in both media. What Flanagan says about exploring the differences in how a story must be told across media is something we don’t get enough of. But for that exploration to work, one has to be committed to the story as told in each medium. It would be tough to get a majority of students committed to the book if they knew the movie was just around the corner, and Flanagan appears all too aware of that. Let’s celebrate the greatness of the book! “Reward.” Psh.
All told it’s a tough case. I guess in the end I’d like to see The Road be part of more school curricula as well because it’s an excellent contemporary book from one of the modern masters of literature. It’s readable and relatable and engaging. Just please, teachers. Don’t kill if for your students.