I was on campus and saw one of our graduate students doing some paperwork or something. Like many of our grad students, Rob is doing a teaching credential and working towards an MA. He was excited because he'd done some student teaching this past semester.
Rob seems like a good guy. He wants to be a good teacher. He's concerned about justice and equality in his teaching.
I asked what he'd taught, and, alas, not being much of an actor, I winced when he started telling me about the joys of teaching Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. He saw my reaction, and asked about it.
I detested The Catcher in the Rye when I was in high school. I just wasn't interested.
Later, when I thought about it after some years of doing literature, I realize that I hated it because we were taught it as if we were supposed to somehow identify with Holden Caulfield, and I just wasn't good at identifying with a prep school boy from the 50s.
Face it, I knew even in my deep innocence then that any female who'd run around doing the things Caulfield does in the novel would have been raped and probably dead.
I explained my reaction to Rob, and he momentarily protested (because really, no one was raped in the 50s... and then he realized that wasn't so). Rob grew disappointed and asked how I'd approach teaching the novel. Err, I wouldn't, really, but if I had to, I'd teach it as an example of how one sort of white masculinity works and gets represented in given contexts. I'd discourage students from identifying with Caulfield, and instead try to get them to think critically about why this book gets taught to them.
And yes, this is why I don't teach high school. (One reason, at least.)
I acknowledged to Rob that it would be difficult to work this way in a high school. And then he surprised me and said that the master teacher he'd worked with had been really open minded, ready to really challenge the status quo at the school, and welcomed his ideas for teaching the American Lit class.
Aha, I said, then that gives you a great opportunity to use The Catcher in the Rye as a contrast to other sorts of representation and experience, right? Set up Caulfield in contrast with the narrator of The Woman Warrior to talk about family relationships and growing up issues/choices, or show how Salinger's representation of masculinity in the 50s differs from Wright's or Ellison's in the 40s, or Malcolm X's autobiography in the 50s/60s! There's a world of great possibility!
So I asked what else they'd taught.
One book was by a woman. No books were by people of color or first generation immigrants.
How the heck is that sort of syllabus supposed to represent the "American Experience" in any meaningful way?
I worry that Rob thought he and his master teacher were challenging sexism, racism, the patriarchy, or anything else. The master teacher? Also a student of ours.
What the heck are we teaching these teachers in our ed courses? And why aren't we teaching them to think on even a basic level about the canon they teach?
Some days, I despair. If these are our teachers, and they're teaching the local students, I despair. And I know I'd hate English studies as much today as I did when I was in high school. That makes me sad.