“You ask why to a lot of things and you wind up very unhappy indeed” * Or, Book Club 101

I mentioned in my last post that I teach high school English now. In that capacity, I’m co-leading an extracurricular book club with another high school English teacher. Originally, I envisioned it primarily for eleventh-graders, and primarily for the eleventh-graders who are taking the dual credit college composition course I’m teaching and are therefore not being instructed in the reading-literature standards the state is going to test them on in April.

I bet you know where this is going. (No, it’s not a rant about state testing, but I will eventually feel compelled to write that rant, no doubt.) Or maybe you live a life that keeps you blissfully unaware of what high school students at very small, low-achieving public schools are like. In which case you may not know that one thing these high school students are not interested in is reading books, or if they are reading them, they’re not interested in talking about them with other people.

So those eleventh-graders I mentioned? They’re not getting extra time talking about (how to read) literature. Instead, we had one lone seventh-grader show up for book club. She rushed in, breathless, at the end of our first lunch-hour meeting, so committed to joining that she left another lunch-hour meeting early to come to ours. This is a girl after my own heart.

But this is not a post about her, or about the state of public education in this country (which is too big for me to tackle here). It’s about what we decided to read.

A little history first: the original plan for the book club was to be very open in terms of what to read, because we didn’t want to scare off any potential members with too prescriptive of a reading list. That said (and we being English teachers at an underfunded public school with underprepared students), we figured we’d try to steer toward 1) the “classics” that students are not reading in the classroom but that might be on the state test, and 2) the books we already have teacher sets of in the school library. So the top two options were, originally, The Scarlet Letter and To Kill a Mockingbird. I have nothing against either of these books–I actually have a soft spot in my heart for 19th-century American literature–but to be honest, I wasn’t thrilled about either choice. (Funny aside: I was going to vote for reading To Kill a Mockingbird just because I figured reading Hawthorne with high school students would stamp out my affection for those American Renaissance writers. That’s right: when you teach high school English, you seriously consider avoiding the books and writers you love so that they don’t become fatally associated with the profoundly frustrating experience of actually trying to teach them. Oh, the irony!)

I’m veering off course. The point is, that original iteration of the book club got absolutely no interest. So I revised it into the “Dystopian Book Club” and had my eighth-grade son, who wrote a series of widely popular morning announcements for Halloween-o-grams back in October, quick write up and deliver a morning announcement for our dystopian venture. This version of the club (and the announcement about it, I suspect) is what elicited our lone seventh-grade joiner. (Since then we’ve grown our ranks: the seventh-grader brought her eighth-grade brother into the mix, and my own eighth-grader and sixth-grader have joined as well. If you’re into statistics, this means there’s only one person in the club who isn’t blood-related to anyone else in the club. Oh, the irony?!)

What was our first book choice? Fahrenheit 451. I hadn’t read it in many years and had little recollection of it, but gosh, that Bradbury had his finger on–way back in 1950 when he published the first (shorter) version of the novel as “The Fireman”–what are now some troubling contemporary issues. For those of you who don’t know (or, like me, don’t remember stuff), the novel follows a week or so in the life of a “fireman” named Guy Montag. In Bradbury’s dystopian world, fireman don’t put out fires, they start them. And they start them in order to burn books–and sometimes the people who own them. So, at its most obvious, Fahrenheit 451 is about censorship.

Bradbury doesn’t get everything right (like: he wants, at least in part, to blame political correctness for censorship, which reads–surprise, surprise–like the plaint of a privileged white guy who doesn’t want “minorities” questioning what he says is true), but his exploration of the breakdown of barriers between screens and life is pretty impressive, given how limited the technology was when he first wrote this book.

But the real itch I’ve been wanting to scratch, the reason I’ve been wanting to write about this experience, has to do with the book’s meditation on happiness. I’ve been thinking about happiness a lot recently. In our particularly American context, happiness is a good to be pursued–you know, the old “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” When I say “good,” I do mean it in both its moral-philosophical and its economic senses. The book questions this pursuit of happiness, equating it with the suppression of dissent and the elimination of the leisure required to think (deeply) about anything important. In other words, thinking about things causes dissent and, therefore, makes us unhappy. Struggle makes us unhappy. In this context, pleasure and ease are happiness, and such things are found on the surface of life, not in its depths (and, as we know, pleasure and ease can be bought). As the book’s antagonist, Beatty, puts it in his attempt to head off Montag’s crisis (of faith? conscience?) and justify the work of the firemen,

We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought. We have our fingers in the dike. Hold steady. Don’t let the torrent of melancholy and drear philosophy drown our world. We depend on you. I don’t think you realize how important you are, we are, to our happy world as it stands now.  (61-2)

Of course, it’s not a happy world underneath. Duh, it’s a dystopia. In the opening pages, Montag’s wife tries to commit suicide, an event that she doesn’t remember in the morning (and plot turn that made my sixth-grader throw down the book in disgust). Characters make references to suicides throughout the book, evincing little sorrow or concern. Nothing, not even death, is worth that much thought. Really, what Beatty’s pulling for is to maintain the happy surface, symbolized by Montag’s frozen and “fiery smile” that “never ever went away, as long as he remembered” (4).

Right. So, like I said, I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness lately as well, though not in the lofty, society-changing way that Bradbury does in his book. I’ve been thinking about it because I am not super-happy here. But then I wonder, is that really the point? I mean, so what if I’m (not) happy? Shouldn’t the purpose of life be something more or other than the pursuit of happiness? And if you get happiness as a byproduct of that other pursuit, then bully for you, but if you don’t, well…

The issue seems to be (in life and in Bradbury’s book) that happiness has become unmoored from meaningfulness, or, more precisely, that true happiness is the result of meaningful engagement with the struggle of life. But this is my question: what if the struggle doesn’t produce happiness–true or false? Does that mean it’s not meaningful?

At the beginning of the book, right before Montag comes home to find his almost-dead-by-pill-suicide wife, he meets the teenaged Clarisse McKellan–a character prone to thinking and questioning and “running in the moonlight” (10)–who asks Montag whether he’s happy. He finds the question nonsensical–of course he’s happy; I find it somewhat beside the point. What Montag eventually embarks on, by the end of the book, is not the pursuit of happiness. In fact, the life he chooses promises to be hard and dangerous. The difference is that he believes it to be meaningful and therefore feels connected to other men who are pursuing meaningful lives and making difficult choices. (And yes, they’re all men.) It’s not ultimately about happiness.

The two characters–Clarisse and Beatty–who pose questions of happiness to Montag are clearly meant to represent opposing ideas of what a happy existence should entail. Beatty’s is the happiness of no-struggle/go-with-the-flow/conform/do-what-you’re told. Clarisse-as-happiness is about making human connections and questioning impressions and experience and thinking deeply about the meaning of life. What I see in my classroom is a paralyzing mix of a Clarisse-ian resistance to doing what you’re told just because you’re supposed to and a Beatty-ian commitment to no struggle. On the one hand, there’s the students’ overall and unquestioned belief that an easily-obtained personal happiness is the greatest good–whether that means getting a good grade or, at least a passing grade, without having to do any classwork or homework that isn’t entertaining enough to maintain their interest. On the other hand, there’s definitely resistance, which comes about via questioning, if not outright refusal.

For example, just last week, a student (an eleventh-grader!) spent an entire class session complaining about having to read and write about Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” (and successfully avoided doing both, despite the multiple offers of one-on-one help from the aide sitting next to him). “How is this relevant to me?” he asked, because that question is the criteria by which students judge the work they’re being asked to do. It’s a reasonable question–and I want them to question the educational system they are ensconced in–but if “relevance” is judged in relation to personal and immediate happiness (of grades, of not having to struggle), then work of any kind is not going to be relevant, even, or maybe especially, the work of learning. We just don’t equate anything that feels like “work” with “happiness.”

And maybe we shouldn’t. That’s what I keep coming back to. Maybe that’s the misstep right there–happiness as the ultimate goal, as the primary preoccupation. Maybe the cultural script should focus on the importance of difficult, meaningful work as the goal of life, where “happiness,” whatever it means, is not even a part of the equation.** (That would mean providing everyone with opportunities for difficult, meaningful work, though.)

How to be happy, how to live a meaningful life–these are not new questions, and I’m wading too deep into philosophical waters without the proper safety equipment. Suffice to say, trying to make learning fun and students happy can be quite the vicious circle for teachers and a source of much unhappiness for everyone involved. (Oh, the irony!) Beatty describes exactly what I feel as a high school English teacher right now. I’m one of “those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought,” and my students are not having it. They don’t want life complicated by what they see as artificial choices. Who could blame them? The struggle of learning is for suckers. Grades are what matter. And English teachers especially are a pain in their collective ass.

Didn’t I tell you it was a hard job?

Am I just an old curmudgeon who is begrudging my students their happiness as my own flounders? Am I just a burnt-out teacher looking for another way to complain about “kids today”? I don’t think so. At least, that’s not my intent or what I feel in my heart of hearts. But too often I find I want them to just do what they’re told, and to do it because I said so, without any resistance. My goal as an educator is not to create people whose most developed talent is to sit down, shut up, and follow directions, but (more irony) if they don’t just sit down, shut up, and do what they’re told–which is reading and talking and writing about texts–how will they learn how to question critically and practice resistance when it really matters? It feels like a losing proposition, though, because I’m asking them to pick the struggle that creates more struggle, rather than the one that provides the immediate gratification–the happiness–of not having to do the work.

 


* p. 60 [This and all other quotations are from the 1991 printing of the 1953 Del Rey edition of Fahrenheit 45.]

** Somehow, I’ve managed to lead myself around to a preliminary claim that suggests that the Declaration of Independence got it wrong. That’s not where I thought I was headed in this post.

 

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