What does it take to get high schoolers to read?

Lit Upby David Denby

Henry Holt. 287p $30

Good books, the story goes, started Ignatius on the path to sainthood. During his convalescence from battle wounds, he asked for tales of chivalry but instead received the lives of Christ and the saints. Reading them awakened him to the spiritual battle, and he emerged from his recovery as the man who would go on to change the course of the church and the world.

As an English teacher, I would like to believe that there is an Ignatius in each of my high school students, who needs only to read the right book to be transformed. First, though, I must convince them to open one. Can a generation so habituated to manipulating screens be made to appreciate something like a novel, whose wood pulp and fixed text stand for everything that a smartphone is not? Creating readers is a difficult task, to be sure, but an essential one; for as long as it insists on reading good books, an English class remains the front line of our contemporary spiritual crisis.

The New Yorker critic David Denby has similar inklings, and in his recent book Lit Up he attempts to evaluate the state of high-school readers. This marks familiar territory for Denby: 20 years ago, in his best-selling Great Books, he sat in on classes at Columbia University, his alma mater, to better understand the debates raging over the Western canon. Now the problems plaguing classes are more fundamental, for how can a discussion of the great books happen if students have not encountered them beyond their online summaries on Sparknotes? Appropriately, in Lit Up Denby goes back to high school to see how, if at all, today’s screen-loving teenagers can be made to read.

He sits in on a sophomore English class at Beacon Academy, a public school in Manhattan for high-achievers. Immediately he braces for the worst. The class has 32 students, three of whom Denby considers to be “real readers” at the outset of the year, and the reading list, which includes Faulkner, Plath, Vonnegut, Sartre and Beckett, would be daunting for any 15-year-old. Led by their dynamic teacher, Sean Leon, the class comes to life. Denby smiles at their attempts at writing confessional poetry, admires their candor in discussing, with Leon, the sudden death of another Beacon teacher and, above all, marvels at their ability to connect their own lives with their reading. The year culminates in an exercise in which students take turns inhabiting the role of Dostoevsky’s contradictory “Underground Man,” fielding questions about their motives and values from the rest of the class. The mock interrogations grow into personal challenges, and suddenly Denby finds himself in a place where literature has come to life. Books, against all odds, have grabbed hold of the class and started to change how they understand themselves. They have become readers.

Leon, a dynamic instructor with a sharp mind and an inexhaustible reserve of energy, emerges as the hero of Lit Up. Though one may argue with his reading list (heavy on existentialism, no Shakespeare, only one female writer), he clearly understands that literature makes spiritual demands of readers. Cognizant of the hazards of the digital world, Leon challenges his students to fast from screens for several days, urging them to resist the media-fueled temptation of “the unlived life” and instead, through the act of reading, to learn to inhabit the present moment. In Leon’s class, Denby marvels, “high school reading had a new mission: Be there.”

Openness to being transformed by what we read is a religious disposition, as the case of Ignatius makes clear. Consider, too, that of Augustine, who, when he heard children singing “pick it up and read it,” opened his Bible to Paul’s Letter to the Romans and read, “Let us behave decently, as in the daytime….” Suddenly the passions that had buffeted his former self seemed so many frivolous distractions. The transformations that happen in sophomore English at Beacon are similar. Leon may be a lapsed Catholic teaching in a public school, but, as Denby puts it, “he ministered to [his students’] souls.” In calling his class to put down their screens and be fully present to their literature and to each other, he teaches them to be something like saints in our age.

Moved by what Leon has accomplished with his class, Denby concludes that “fifteen year-olds will read seriously when inspired by charismatic teachers alert to what moves adolescents.” This is true enough, and Lit Up, in portraying one such charismatic individual, will rightfully occupy the bedside tables of so many tired English teachers as fodder for the journey.

Unfortunately, Denby does not dig deeper into the circumstances that allow a teacher like Leon to work his magic. Part of the blame falls on the book’s forays into two other schools, which are too brief to offer the kind of insight that the longitudinal study in Leon’s class does. Simply put, his transformative class is made possible by Beacon’s vision. The school has taken deliberate steps to extricate itself from the demands of our country’s educational technocracy, in which the quantifiable is king and an English class is seen as a place for reading informational texts rather than one where great literature can transform souls. The school’s performance-based assessments (like portfolios, written work and projects) allow it to withdraw from most of the State of New York’s testing requirements, and its principal, Ruth Lacey, the unsung hero of the book, insists on her teachers’ freedom to structure their own curricula. In other words, Beacon is purposely designed to be a place where “intellectually ambitious teachers” like Leon can practice their craft.

Denby acknowledges that Beacon and Leon are special but does not press the hard questions upon our educational system, instead content to offer a paean to miracle-working teachers like Leon. Even so, Lit Up is a must-read for all educators, for it does the great service of reminding us that the work of an English teacher, whether in a religious or secular school, is nothing if not a spiritual vocation.

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