Required Reading

Required Reading QUESTION from Michael on December 18, 2003

Dear Brother,
You comments please on the following: A Catholic High School has had for their English class required reading of The Catcher in the Rye and One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. They are not required reading this year due to the objection of some parents. I have mentioned this to several people including a Catholic Apologist, and they claim that those books have no business being in a Catholic School due to the free use of profanity and their sexual content. I sent an e-mail to Christendom College, because I heard that this is a very good Catholic College, to see if they have it as required reading, and they said they have the books but not required reading. Besides they do not believe in actually banning those books because they do not believe in censuring. Our parish priest says he can't believe this High School can call itself Catholic because they have for many years REQUIRED reading these books.
I have checked with other Catholic Schools in the area and they say they have those books in their library but are not required reading. One of their English heads said that there are countless books that can give the same message without the use of profanity that these books contain. One of the priests at this particular High School, once during his homily at a mass the whole student body attended, reprimanded the students at the foul language he would hear in the halls and even in his classroom. One of the English teachers at this school said he has taught this book for many years, it is a classic, has a great message, and that as long as it is taught in a controlled environment it should not be banned.
I told this teacher that we were sending the students the wrong message because on one hand we have a priest getting after the student body for their use foul language and then on the other hand we require them to read books that have the same language we tell them not to use. He of course disagreed. I made a comment that St. Teresa said that ..the greatest amount of good does not justify the smallest amount of evil. To me that is the thought of many now a-days.
Lets show and teach the students all forms of foul and gutter language, required them to read books filled with sexual content and the use of Our Lords Name in vain, and then tell them in the end, don't use those words.
Would you as a poet, writer, editor, spiritual director, approve of such material to be taught in a Catholic High school?
I happened to talk briefly with a priest who is editor of a Catholic Questions & Answers book, when he visited our church a few months back, and asked him about these books. He casually admitted that he saw nothing wrong these books. He read them as a youth and saw no reason why teens can't read them. Besides, he said that the students have heard these words before. I told him that I thought we were to fill our minds with all that is good and failed to see how these books can be of any value, but just dismissed it.

ANSWER by John-Paul Ignatius, OLSM on December 20, 2003

Dear Michael:
There are certainly classic books that I would not recommend to young children; we do need to pay attention to age-appropriate considerations. Catcher in the Rye and One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest are certainly not for children, or for younger teens. These volumes can be included in upper level high school literature course, I belive, without a problem -- depending on the teacher (but then that is true in all things taught in school. Much depends on the teacher to teach appropriately).
The mere fact that these are other books contain profane language and/or sexual situations does not make them ipso facto a promoter of those behaviors especially when these materials are read in the context of a literature class. These volumes are classic literature and important literature. As with all literature we examine the nature of humanity.
There are other books that contain profane language and/or sexual situations. One, for example, is the Bible. There are some extremely erotic passages in the Bible. I would suggest that those passages are also not for young children.
Another author will have to be banned too, if we are to be consistent -- Mark Twain. In fact, in the past many parents did complain about some of Mark Twain's books and some of those books were actually banned from schools.
Shakespeare also has some very erotic material; and I could go on for hundreds of pages.
In the context of a literature class, a controlled setting as it were, the student examine the conflicts, issues, nature, and travails of the human condition.
The problem today is not the presence of classic literature like this; the problem is the lack of teaching of classic literature. One of the reasons we live today in such a terrible worldview is that we have several generations of people now who have not been properly schooled in literature and the classics. Literature and the classics, in my view, are important factors in teaching our youth about what it means to be human.
In this context a book that includes immorality becomes a lesson in why morality is important, not a promotion of immorality.
Catcher in the Rye is a perceptive study of one individual's understanding of his human condition. It explores the psychological deterioration and the dynamics and progress of that deterioration of a sixteen year old who has been kicked out of school.
The book is an excellent teaching tool to help teens confront and deal with their own intense emotions. It is a very valuable book. It deals with a side of the human condition that is not very comfortable, but of which most of us have experienced in one way or another.
In learning about what it means to be human, from the point-of-view of this book, one gains an insight into themselves that may, in fact, help them to cope with or even avoid the pitfalls of the boy in the book.
One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest is a far more problematic book from a Christian ethic point-of-view, but nevertheless a valuable book in the teaching of literature as a venue on the human condition.
This novel deals with countercultural themes and in some ways forms a bridge between the 1950's bohemian beatnik movement and the 1960's countercultural movement.
Indeed, some of the themes are not Christian, such as themes of 1) Women as Castrators; 2) Society’s Destruction of Natural Impulses; 3)The Importance of Expressing Sexuality
Each generation has its own brand of countercultural rebellion. Examining this counterculture of the 50's and 60's is valuable for the teens to understanding their own.
In fact, in the context of a Catholic school, I could come up with a teaching plan on this book that uses the book as a springboard to examine the difficulties of the countercultural life we as Christians are suppose to live.
The novel also deals with some motifs that are important for teens to deal with, such as:

Invisibility:Many teens feel invisible and even try to not be seen. This motif can be valuable for such a teen to explore why they wish to be invisible and to perhaps find a more productive way of expressing their lives.

The Power of Laughter:So many teens are too serious. We need to laugh to be healthy. This motif provides an important lesson for the teens.

Real Versus Imagined Size:Similar to the Invisibility motif, this one deals with issues of how one sees themselves in the world and in the presence of their peers. Some see themselves as more than they really are, but many, maybe most, see themselves as less than they really are. This motif makes an excellent discussion topic to help teens to evaluate this topic and see themselves more accurately.

The main conflict in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, as one lesson plan suggests, is described in three different ways: as the struggle of the 'sane individual vs. a crazy institution,' 'man vs. machine,' and 'a primeval, wild, unsocialized, anti-family form of masculinity vs. asexual women, institutions, and society that want to tame it.'
Discussing these conflicts in the context of a class is invaluable. The teens can discuss how these views differ from one another and how these conflicts may exist in their own lives, and how to deal with these issues.
The novel also allows the reader to explore two very basic American fantasies: (1) the individual with personal freedom and complete independence, and (2) the rebel standing up to and subverting structures of oppression.
There is so much material that is valuable from a teaching perspective, even for a Catholic teacher, that volumes could be written.
With the guidance of a teacher who teaches from a Catholic worldview and in full understanding of and loyalty to Catholic teaching and morality, these books are not harmful, but can be very beneficial.
I do not suggest that every work of literature ever written is valuable, but these books are important additions to the literary pursuit to discover something about the human condition and to discover what it means to be human.
However, no matter how valuable a work of literature may be, it obviously needs to be evaluated for age-appropriateness.
Although both of these books are rated for grades 9-12 I personally would rate The Catcher in the Rye no less than 10th Grade; and One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest no less than 12th grade.
Bottomline: in the right context, with appropriate Catholic guidance, I find these books to be of great value for our high school and college age kids.
As for being REQUIRED, well I think a parent always has the right to ask the school to exclude their children from any such requirement.
The other consideration in teaching particular works of literature is not only the age-appropriateness of a particular work, but also the individual appropriateness. Some teens may not have the maturity or the psychology to handle these books. That is a decision a parent must make, but that decision should not be based solely on themes of the books, but on whether study of the book may provide a particular harm to a particular child.
A parent also has the right to ask the teacher what he has planned for the book. How will he teach the book? How will be relate the themes of the book to helping the kids be better people and better Catholics? These are all good questions.
God Bless,Bro. Ignatius Mary

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