By Selwyn Duke
Like many alive today, I had to read The Catcher in the Rye in high school. I can't really say I learned much from the book, although, just to be fair, I must point out that I wasn't exactly a dedicated student at the time. But the work was supposed to be something kids could relate to, as it was about "teen angst."
I don't know about you, but I never experienced teen angst. (Knowing what I now do about the state of the world and our civilization's spiritual and moral decay, I could probably feel middle-aged angst, but my faith forestalls that.) And the idea that kids are supposed to experience such a thing is silly. Sure, it might be the lot of the more disturbed, maladjusted teens, but many youths are just people who are trying to live their lives and participate in society. Not all are ne'er do wells who are perennially anxious, apprehensive and depressed. In fact, the idea that they are -- implicit in which is almost always the idea that they have a right to be -- is something projected onto them by maladjusted leftist adults. It much reminds me of the "grief counselors" (good grief!) who are called in today every time there's a tragedy at some school. It's the handiwork of effete adults who just assume that everyone is as psychologically fragile as they are, that someone will be irrevocably traumatized unless a psycho-babbler is around to hold his hand. It never occurs to them that many people just soldier on. So it is with teen angst: Those who assume teens are supposed to experience it are simply operating under the assumption that every young person is as unstable as they were -- and are.
But this is only tangential to why I'm writing about this topic today. I came across this article at NPR.org, about one Anne Trubek, an English professor at Oberlin College. It seems as if she wouldn't mind seeing The Catcher in the Rye stricken from school reading lists, but not for the reasons why a traditionalist would dispense with it. Writes NPR:
'It was published in 1951 and it's not so contemporary anymore,' Trubek tells Scott Simon. 'I think that most American teenagers will find it rather tame and sort of laughable the things that were once considered so controversial.'
And in the days of Columbine, Katrina, Facebook, and YouTube, Salinger's Holden Caulfield may no longer offer a reflecting pool for adolescent angst, Trubek says. 'I think his experience of adolescent alienation is pertinent, but he's also an upper-class white man who's going to a prep school.'
NPR explains further:
"Trubek is not arguing that The Catcher in the Rye didn't deserve its acclaim as an instant American classic, but she points out that classics are man-made. 'No reason why we couldn't do the same with some of the things that have been written in the last 10 years.'"
There is nothing that better illustrates the problem with modern education than this story. The first mistake we make is in thinking that teens must be able to automatically "relate" to the work. This is nonsense. Teaching classics is only valuable insofar as they can be used to teach lessons about life, about good and evil, and virtue and vice. It's only valuable if they can be used to teach children Truth and help instill virtue. And Truth doesn't change. Thus, reading lists don't need to be updated every generation for the purposes of catering to the spirit of its age (which won't change with the wind if we identify Truth and instill it in every generation), to the generation's characteristic faults; books do not need to be made "modern." Kids need to be made eternal.
What I mean is that education has been reduced to an encounter group. The goal should not be to identify the moral peculiarities of a given generation and make the books conform to them; it should be to identify the Truth and help the generation conform to it. Kids do not need works they can easily relate to, although they certainly may want that. Like all of us, they need to learn to relate to the Truth.
Otherwise, there is no education. After all, using people as an example, we tend to relate to those who are like us; thus, the ignorant may not be able to relate to the learned. Yet, if they never learn to, will they have bettered themselves? It is the same with works. We can certainly relate to works that express ideas no more noble than those already dominating our thoughts, but let's follow this to its logical conclusion. We would then provide a characteristically racist generation with racist works, a characteristically greedy, envious or lustful one with works that were characterized by, respectively, greed, envy or lust. But that isn't education, just affirmation.
The problem with Professor Trubek is that, like most academics, she is a moral relativist. She said that classics are man-made, which, barring divine inspiration, is true enough. But the Truths expressed therein are not of our mortal design. Thus, when Trubek says that there is no reason why we can't bestow "classic" status on books written in the last ten years, she proves herself to be a pox on the educational system. A work should only become a classic when it has proven to be a vehicle through which Truth can be taught in an effective and/or inspirational way. The attainment of classic status should not be driven by a desire to provide the flavor of the day, and it should not be influenced by it. As to this, we see a lot of trash in school nowadays, books chosen simply because they buttress kids' self-esteem, or satisfy ethnic appetites (e.g., afro-centric literature) or the feminist agenda. You could call it compiling book lists by quota, or affirmative action as applied to literature. And pandering to the flavor of the day is what made The Catcher in the Rye a fixture in the schools in the first place.
As with all prescriptions based in relativism, Professor Trubek's philosophy is self-defeating. If we can simply create classics out of thin air as the political and social climate demands without regard for the Truths contained therein because there is no Truth, on what basis do we lend the demands of that political and social climate credence? What could then be wrong with imposing the "values" of one group on another? What could be wrong with not providing blacks, girls, the young or any other group material to which they can relate? What could be wrong with just providing the white-male perspective? It is all just a matter of opinion, and one perspective is as good as another. And how could it be important to teach a perspective anyway? You can't determine importance without a yardstick for doing so.
And that yardstick isn't some English professor at Oberlin College.
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