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Coarsening is not educating

A teacher’s troubling book recommendation for ninth graders


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Coarsening is not educating

I wrote the following letter in response to a teacher recommending a novel written by John Green to ninth graders at my daughter’s school. Green is best known for The Fault in Our Stars, a bestseller that later became a popular but troubling movie. The concerns outlined in my letter are becoming increasingly relevant in today’s children’s publishing world and in light of market trends and articles like “Why you shouldn’t censor your teen’s reading (even the sex and violence),” which The Washington Post published earlier this month.

Dear Teacher,

Thanks for your thoughtful response. I know you have the best intentions for the kids and the school. I appreciate your attitude of openness to further evaluation and receiving recommendations. Here’s an alternative viewpoint.

I am disappointed and troubled by your recommendation of John Green’s Paper Towns. Like I said before, the influence of a teacher is powerful. Most parents, out of blind trust and perhaps carelessness, will not check your reading list. Inherent in the fact that they send their kids to a Christian school at great expense, while still being taxed for the public schools, is that they expect a much different experience and set of influences.

Christian schools were started and continue because they expect a Christian worldview as opposed to the secular humanist worldview that runs public education. It is not enough to send book lists to parents in an email. We must trust the teacher, not only for book lists but also the daily influence you are putting into their developing minds for 180 days a year. Leading them to consider Green as a beneficial author and any of his novels, without full parental disclosure as in that explicit review I sent you, is not acceptable in my opinion. I can get this kind of influence in the public schools for my kids for free. I have a deep investment in this school and Christian education. I am looking for a much higher standard and set of goals at every level in a private school.

The implication of “emotional maturity to read it” is troubling too. I would like the term defined if it is going to be in the discussion. I am unsure entirely of what it means in your judgment. If defined, vaguely, as “it doesn’t shock them too much or lead them to replicate the behavior,” how is that to be judged? The teacher can have no way of knowing this. Who picks up the pieces if your assumption is wrong? You are gambling with my money, and that is not OK.

Only a fool, or someone with an agenda, would tell a child that anything published is fair game. Centuries of pedagogy have told us this truth.

Secondly, who is to make this judgment? The teacher? For my family and daughter, my wife and I make those judgment calls concerning emotional maturity. Indeed, making judgment calls of emotional maturity is perhaps the best definition of parenting. Parenting is censoring. Calling parenting censorship is very deceptive. Only a fool, or someone with an agenda, would tell a child that anything published is fair game. Centuries of pedagogy have told us this truth.

Only a parent can know the nuance and subtlety of the thousand ways each child needs nurturing and development. This is an unwritten wisdom a parent develops. Each child is different. Children are known best by parents who have spent thousands of hours observing and caring for them and their spiritual and physical development.

This is not the teacher’s role. It is never the teacher’s role. The teacher is invited in to support that development in minor ways, not author new exposures to evil thoughts and actions with the vague sense that the child is “emotionally ready for it.”

Enjoyment is not a good rationale either. Many things are or could be enjoyable to young people, it does not mean they are healthy.

The idea that Green and his novel Paper Towns is a good example of “the way the world operates” and “is the world we live in today” and that not reading them insinuates “ignorance as a remedy” is not defensible on any level. One of the things every generation does throughout history, especially the last 100 years of American popular culture, is maintain the erroneous belief that they invented sex, cuss words, drugs, and whatever sort of rebellious behavior that angers one’s parents. They always think they are the first to crack open a “modern world” to the stuffy, naive elders around them. We are still of the age that just can’t stop giggling about Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Solomon was right 3,000 years ago when he discovered that there is nothing new under the sun. John Green is not rolling back the curtain on anything new in the life of a teenager, or mankind. With a quick stroll through any age represented in the Bible, we see the debauchery of man throughout time, roughly 6,000 years of human history, quite clearly.

The literary gift of the Bible, which trashy writers like Green do not understand, is that you can “tell how the world operates” without using the F-word 100 times. The Bible, and the classic canon of great books of Western civilization, present the range of humanity’s foibles involving sex, murder, idolatry, adultery, prostitution, homosexuality, abusive language, greed, envy, lust, and so on. Great literature can tell the truth of the world without the graphic images and words and plain old juvenile immature locker room talk that Green traffics in—and authors like him use to pander to their audience.

In Green’s vulgar writing he has nothing to teach. He mocks Christianity at every turn. He mocks traditional values, glories in second- and third-wave feminism, celebrates and promotes homosexuality, glamorizes teenage alcohol and drug experimentation—all of which results in an overwhelming classic secular humanist worldview that drips from every page.

In Green’s vulgar writing he has nothing to teach.

“The way the world works” can and should be taught to kids. Starting with the gore and strife that the Bible provides, through which my kids first asked me about the topics of wine, drunkenness, virginity, sex, prostitution, stoning, beheading, cursing, crucifixion, and hell. Following that education, books should be used to teach about the Holocaust and World War II, Vietnam, slavery in America and throughout world history, the civil rights movement, the Rwandan genocide, the Spanish Inquisition, abortion, and the ravages of 20th-century political history. My daughter was born and raised on ranches for boys and children’s homes in New York, Missouri, and Texas. Those are the bomb-cratered battlefields of the way the world works. She has butchered deer, castrated calves, dragged off dead horses she loved, looked tragedy in the eye, and been beneath the waters of baptism.

Can Green’s novels about doing keg stands and teenage binge drinking punctuated with innumerable crass terms for sex acts and masturbation help my daughter’s worldview over and above the resources listed? I reject that idea wholeheartedly.

The only thing an author like Green can add to her education is the example of an exploiter of teen emotions for marketing purposes. His work is a flashy screen that young people, younger women especially, are pulled toward by his casual and sarcastic display of sexuality and vulgarity. Nothing more. It’s teen harlequin fiction with witty dialog. Coarsening is not educating. Teens must be shepherded around such seductive influences, not herded to them by their mentors.

Did J.K. Rowling, Mark Twain, or Anne Frank need the F-word to sell a million copies? At the height of the hedonistic Jazz Age, F. Scott Fitzgerald delivered The Great Gatsby without F-words or graphic sex. A novel that clearly showed the vacuous debauchery that leads to a ruined, pathetic life. It is nourishing art, and a century’s worth of thoughtful people have agreed. It’s the work of a master and it should be taught. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was written by a man who died of syphilis in his 40s. He pulled no punches about the world we live in, but Robert Louis Stevenson had the grace and good taste and trust in his intelligent audience not spell it out every time a gratuitous scene offered an opportunity. One sign of great art is restraint.

My argument is not necessarily a moral/religious one, although that is also a good argument. My argument is an artistic one. Great art and great storytelling simply don’t need graphic depictions of sex, violence, or language. When the artist has to bend the camera lens for close-ups of these gratuitous scenes, I am forced to realize that the storytelling has stopped and I am being exploited by sensory candy.

Another note on The Great Gatsby, which you mentioned you read with your parents in, as you called it, “a controlled environment.” Paper Towns is on your self-reading list. These are entirely different learning experiences.

You mentioned that perhaps some of your students could relate to Paper Towns. This is not only a dangerous assumption on your part but a paper-thin motivation for encouraging anything. I’ll acknowledge relatability has some level of value in art and literature, but only if it points toward truth and justice regarding the negative aspect that is being related to. Just relating for relating’s sake may only equal reinforcement. I think it is clear Green’s novels offer no rebuke of negative behavior on any level. Teaching, on the other hand, is a much different task than merely relating. Teaching infers I am bringing material that in many ways will not be relatable. The teacher is a trusted source of unrelatable material about new worlds and experiences to better the student or reader. Indeed, that is the great gift of books, not that I may relate directly, but that I may travel great spans of time, geography, and experience to learn and perhaps empathize with others unlike myself.

We should not eat what makes us sick.

I urge you to consider carefully the power of your influence in the classroom, over the students as well as the parents. I encourage you to teach “the way the world works” in all its ugliness. But consider that great artists can do this by also finding the beauty in the world alongside the Fall. They do this by maintaining a level of good taste, meaning maturity, and realizing that God is the beginning and end of all things. That the glorious resurrection is the end of the story. These books resolve with a hopefulness that makes the reader better. After all, that is why we consume art, because it nourishes us. We should not eat what makes us sick.

Secular humanists like Green reject this. All they have is “now.” Their art damages the reader by glorifying behaviors—many of which are illegal—that do not lead to happiness. In Green’s case, suicide and death haunt all of his characters, and is that a surprise? That is all the secular humanist has to offer, and so that is what they feed their readers in a clever but caustic package. If not handled very carefully, and what many young teachers do not understand, is that this exposure does not empower and inoculate students against the behaviors, it normalizes it. Every parent knows this. It becomes part of the story background with which a teen sees and interprets the world. This is powerful magic. It must be wielded with care and extreme thoughtfulness.

The shame is, Green writes well and has discovered his own creative style. I look forward to a day when he might write a novel with restraint, without F-words, that seeks to nourish a reader toward hopefulness instead of bleak nihilism. The rub is, that is hard. It’s much easier to exploit with sappy plots and graphic images teens will giggle about and point out to their friends. The way his work stands today, my house and I will say “no.” Even if we are the only ones.

We are all on a learning curve, co-learners and tutors to our kids and students, doing the best with what we have received to this point. I hope this discussion will bear some fruit for both of us, and the school. To be involved “in loco parentis” with someone else’s beloved children is dangerous. I have dealt with it from many sides in my career as a founder and director of a ranch for boys, author of children’s books, teacher, and parent. I haven’t always made the right calls. But we need good people to seek the high calling of a teacher, on any level. I am glad you have done so.


S.J. Dahlstrom S.J. lives and writes in West Texas with his wife and children. His The Adventures of Wilder Good young-adult book series has won the Will Rogers Gold Medallion twice. The most recent release in the series is Silverbelly.

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OldMike

After reading this comment, I went back and reread S.J.’s letter, thinking I sure must have overlooked a great deal. 

But no, I still did not see sanctimony or smugness. It does appear the teacher made a very inappropriate reading recommendation and I think S.J. did a good job of explaining why it was inappropriate. 

SCOO3158

Fabulous letter. 

LindaLee

Thank you dearly, S.J.  May I quote you?  The Spirit is breathing heavily within me.  God blesses you and your daughter, and those with whom you connect.  Linda

 

Varenikje

This reading list is at a "Christian" school? Oh dear! Perhaps at a "Christian" school where no one has  any contact with Christ? 

David Russell

Thank you, SJ, for respectfully yet firmly confronting what you believe is wrong.  Dialog is good.  However, more parents need to draw a line when their views are quickly dismissed and ridiculed by educators who are making foolish decisions.  I hope your kind approach is well received by the teacher, and more importantly, the school.

Sincerely,

David

Aro7529

I read your article and thought about the story in Genesis 38 about Tamar and Judah.  A father in law having sex with his daughter in law whom he thinks is a harlot.  Then the wonderful hypocrisy he displays when Judah goes to punish his daughter in law for having sex until she reveals that she had sex with him.  I do not need to know the details of the sex act.  I can fill it in with my own mind, and yet that makes it more powerful.  I imagine it.  That is good and disturbing writing.  Likewise the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife.  She gets away with her lie. Her passions change from love to disgust.  The one she desires because of his looks becomes her enemy because of his refusal to share her bed.   I can understand and grow from stories like that.  Not only is the story describing realistic emotions it is revealing the cost of her evil to another. She is never punished, she simply disappears from the story.  Evil is like that. It appears damages and leaves.  The story is the struggle for Joseph to make sense of life in prison.

We need teachers who can tell stories.  Teachers who can make characters from stories come alive.  Cutting corners by adding excessive sexual details or abuse of drugs or alcohol destroys the imagination, it becomes a cheap way to tell a story.  The moral struggles to make sense of life are missing and that is a key to life and to a great story.  Telling a story without a sense of guilt, a driving desire of the characters to add value and purpose to their existence misses the mark.  I suspect your teacher has missed the mark.  You are not more mature from reading John Greene you are shallower, you have seen evil without hope, without a struggle for value.