Several weeks ago, just before slipping into an extended holiday, I ventured the opinion in this space that schools commit a disservice to their students when they require them to read books they are unprepared to comprehend. Quite impertinently, I suggested that any teacher forcing them to do so "be removed at once from the practice of teaching and be sentenced, for life, to the preparation of the Classic Comics edition of 'Finnegans Wake.' "
In so pronouncing I quite stupidly violated the columnist's First Law, which reads: Never write anything remotely controversial before going off on vacation, or you'll spend half of that vacation answering angry letters. This, of course, is precisely what happened: The English teachers descended upon my mailbox in droves, and their letters kept me busy through several afternoons that would otherwise have been spent in happy contemplation of important topics, most notably my ball yard's recent acquisition of the services of Lee Lacy, Don Aase and -- O Tannenbaum! O Tannenbaum! -- Fred Lynn.
Still, it was kind of all these people to write, and in the spirit of the holidays I shall not subject them to cruel and unusual punishment for completely misunderstanding what I had said. But since this misunderstanding seems to be so widespread, we had better begin the New Year by setting matters straight and, if there is any hope for 1985, getting the English teachers off my back.
Of the many letters that came my way, perhaps the most comprehensive and characteristic was written by a teacher from Northern Virginia. "It seems somehow ironic," she said, "that your column bemoaning the fact that students are given material too difficult for them to read should appear at the same time that William Bennett chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities is bemoaning the decline in the quality of humanities preparation in the schools." She discerned a connection here, and wrote:
"The humanities were abandoned by Sixties students because they were 'difficult,' and they did not lend themselves to facile discussion. Reading them was work, and students, permitted to choose what they were and were not willing to work for, opted to rid the curriculum of subjects that did not promise instant intellectual gratification."
Her own experience as a teacher, though, has taught this correspondent that the mastery of difficult books is a challenge that students welcome. She has assigned "The Sound and the Fury" to 11th-graders, and "The Scarlet Letter," and "The Hairy Ape." The going hasn't been easy, but the rewards have been considerable: "There are any number of readers whose early training in the works of Sophocles, or Shakespeare, or Joyce, or Faulkner, has bred in them not a dread of that which is difficult, but the willingness to expend a little intellectual effort in return for no end of pleasure." And:
"When good teachers everywhere are still having to buck the tide of the relevancy test of worthiness for reading, it is disheartening to read a column such as yours. Good books, like good lobsters, require a bit more work. Fast food and an easy read might hold more popular appeal, but there is pleasure to be had in learning to think, to question, to stretch the mental muscle which exists in every one of us."
Does anybody out there disagree with these words? Of course not; certainly I don't. But they -- and the many other words I received from many other teachers and readers -- have almost nothing to do with what was said in the disputed column. The issue under discussion was not whether difficult books should be read by students, but when they should be read. There's a world of difference in those questions, but that difference goes utterly unaddressed in all these lofty and unexceptionable words about challenge and mastery and mental muscle.
Certainly it is true, as my correspondent put it, that "the acquisition of literacy is not easy work" and that "beginning at a young age, a child should be taught to reach for knowledge." That's what the schools are there for. But -- could anything be more obvious? -- they are also there to lay out the path toward knowledge in a systematic fashion that presents students with increasingly difficult material as they become equipped to cope with it.
A piano student does not begin with the "Transcendental Etudes"; a piano student begins with scales. By the same token, a student of literature does not begin with "The Sound and the Fury" or "King Lear." That these are great works is beyond dispute, and that they should be well known to anyone graduating from college with a degree in the humanities is also beyond dispute. But they don't come first, or at least they don't in any system that hopes to instill in its students a genuine and lasting love of literature.
When I wrote that "the door to Faulkner is not 'The Sound and the Fury' but 'The Reivers,' " I was not saying that the latter should be substituted for the former; I was saying that the relatively easy book can help smooth the reader's passage into the vastly more difficult one. The problem with the teaching of higher literature in too many schools is that they expose students only to books that are tough going, with the entirely predictable consequence that students come away from this exposure with a sour view of literature that lasts them for the rest of their lives. This is education?
A student's progress through Faulkner, or Shakespeare, or Joyce, should be like the piano student's: from scales to exercises to easy pieces and eventually to Liszt. Through "The Reivers" -- or, as one reader astutely suggested, "The Unvanquished" -- the student can encounter Faulkner's style in a relatively accessible form, can meet some of the people who live in Yoknapatawpha County and get some sense of its landscape, can discover that there are pleasures as well as terrors in this ostensibly forbidding writer. Thus initiated, the reader can move on: to "Sanctuary," perhaps, to "The Hamlet," to "Light in August" and at last to the masterpieces, "The Sound and the Fury" and "Absalom! Absalom!"
The teachers will reply that in a survey course they don't have the time to cram in so much Faulkner or anyone else. They have to pick and choose, they'll say, and they choose the masterpieces. Their instinct, need it be said, is entirely laudable. For all but a handful of students, though, their decision is not. The good will, good intentions and hard work of the teachers simply are not enough; they need to bear in mind that for most students, too much too soon is the kiss of death for a lasting education, and they need to plan their curricula accordingly.