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“When nature calls and says, ‘Call me Ishmael,’ it’s a whole new way to get absorbed into a novel.”
Anderson Cooper featured a roll of toilet paper on his segment The Ridiculist last night, but not just any roll of toilet paper: one being sold on eBay for at least $999. Apparently, some dedicated soul has taken the time to type out the entire text of Moby Dick on five rolls.
Watch the segment and see if you can catch all the puns and allusions. But here’s the catch; if you’re not well read, if you ignored your English teachers’ assignments all those years, you won’t get all the references. High school kids will appreciate the bathroom humor, for sure, but only if they know the book titles. At least five other famous novels (The Call of the Wild, Lord of the Flies, Gone with the Wind, The Sound and the Fury, Howard’s End, and Something Wicked This Way Comes) are mentioned. Captain Ahab gets a moment, too.
When E.D. Hirsch talks about cultural literacy, the ability to know many bits and bytes of our history and culture at the drop of a name, it raises a question for educators in a global society of how much both we and our students should know about so many, many things.
Is there a canon anymore? I would argue yes, of course, but as America ages, I think we’ll have to get more selective, and that “dumbs it down.” Huck Finn isn’t the only representative of America, 1885 (trying to capture a pre-Civil War America, at that), but pacing guides and unit sizes force it into “main event status.” Many teachers search out other American voices to round out the picture: quotations and excerpts from Chief Joseph, Chief Seattle, Frederick Douglass, or Susan B. Anthony. Educators try to give our kids the full picture and mention many idioms, allusions, and other rich moments of America while teaching our main events. It’s important when you consider that Google’s first response to your typing Susan B…yields an automatic “Susan Boyle.” What the mass of people want ain’t necessarily what they need to know–no offense to a reality-show star.
I’m headed to Mysore, India in May to conduct a teacher training, and I face every day my massive ignorance on the subject of that enormously rich, diverse country. I just picked up Imagining India and have a whole stack of authors to get to know in the next few months. My desire to learn more has always been there, since a child, but I always appreciated the cool trivia and fascinating nuggets my teachers shared with me over the years. It instilled further curiosity and modeled lifelong learning. My 6th grade social studies teacher who was brave enough, in a Catholic school, to mention the assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone; my high school teacher who spent ample time on Charles Baudelaire and ennui. No, I confess I’ve never read a big Dickens novel cover to cover (only A Chrismas Carol); nope, I bailed out of Moby Dick, too. (Sorry, Mrs. Connor. You were the best English teacher, but my senior year, I was full of ennui! But I read every other novel you ever assigned me, and boy, you had us read a lot.)
The solution isn’t to up the ante of the pacing guide and cram more books in, but perhaps the buffet of differentiated approaches might help this massive cultural literacy challenge we face. There are independent reading lists, tiered assignments, more excerpts and less full reads (for example, top-ten scenes of a classic work over 100 years old), summer reading lists, and book clubs, all of which can allow us to encourage, cajole, excite, and inspire our students to read more, think more, and make connections.
Of course, we hope the parents are spreading the same message every night at home, and not just about books. About great films, works of art, and works of music. About dance and sculpture and big moments in history.
If the whole village delights in our cultural details, we’re growing. We aren’t America on the decline, which seems to be a prevailing fear of late. Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can learn about your country. And the world.
Then, at the very least, we won’t feel ridiculous when we watch The Ridiculist.