Why Is Literature So Bad?

It’s terrible! You can’t argue that it’s good.

Now it’s well written, thoughtful, insightful, and jam packed with meaning.

But it’s terrible!

I think you’ll agree. Hear me out.

What did you read in high school? I’m guessing some or all of the following (my nota benes in parentheses):

  1. Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare. (Death of title characters and sword wielding testosterony young men)
  2. Macbeth by Shakespeare. (Death of title character…and, nearly everyone else.)
  3. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. (Slavery, hypocrisy, hucksterism, family feuds)
  4. Julius Caesar by Shakespeare. (Death of title character and assorted Romans)
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. (Prejudice, Jim Crow, hypocrisy, death of Jim…and Bob Ewell thank goodness.)
  6. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (Adultery, puritanism, and all that jazz)
  7. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. (Death of Crooks’ dog, rabbit, Curly’s wife, and Lenny)
  8. Hamlet by Shakespeare. (Death of Hamlet, his girlfriend, his family, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, and much of Scandinavia.)
  9. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Death of Jay Gatz[by])
  10. Lord of the Flies by William Golding. (Death of pilot, Piggy, and a bunch of public school lads)

This is the list of the top ten books taught in American high schools, according to the Center for Learning and Teaching of Literature.

Terrible!  Tragedy death suicide cruelty slavery Jim Crow prejudice regicide suicide demagoguery adultery. Well these books aren’t all bad. Huck stands up for Jim; Malcolm and Fortinbras set the states back in order. And of course there’s Atticus Finch.

Okay, I’ll admit, I love all these books…well maybe not The Scarlet Letter. I’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird at least ten times, having taught it to 7th graders for more than a decade. 

I think one reason we live in a time of unprecedented democracy, human rights, peace, health, and prosperity is because of the novel. Before novels were written and printed for home consumption, readers didn’t go deeply into the lives and heads of people unlike themselves. This is a very good thing, an idea shared by many scholars, including Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature.

I’m all for enjoying and studying literature. I love Fitzgerald’s writing in The Great Gatsby. I love Shakespeare. At my last teaching gig I had my fifth graders perform a shortened version of Macbeth every year. They loved it. Especially all the murder parts (i.e., the whole play). And To Kill a Mockingbird ends in sweet uplift as the gentle oddball saves Jem and Scout.

On the other hand, none of these books take place in a world you’d like to live in. My favorite characters from these works-Jim, Tom, Lenny, Boo, Piggy–are misfits in an unfeeling world mown down by the powerful. It’s good literature. It’s important to learn about this stuff. But I don’t think this is what happens to the vast majority of us; it does seem to happen in most of the great books we read.

If these are the books our children, read, read, read, and are taught to revere, what will they learn from the themes and (mostly) tragic outcomes? Weirdos are mistreated by society…always have, always will?

What I suggest is unreasonable, but I’ll propose it anyway: balance.

The website Goodreads posts 250 works of “uplifting fiction.” Like most aggregated web lists, it is spotty in parts but pretty helpful. The authors of the top nine books listed are women (interesting!). This fact may reflect who posts on Goodreads rather than any truism that “men write depressing books; women write uplifting books,” but it’s food for thought. Pride and Prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Jane Eyre, indisputable classics, were near the top of the list. There were some other nuggets sprinkled further down the list, including A Room with a View, The Princess Bride, and many of Shakespeare’s comedies, which got me thinking. Shakespeare’s tragedies are favored in high school book lists. I was assigned none of the Bard’s comedies in high school and college, but I read Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Romeo and Juliet. Is the literature of comedy underrepresented? We all use humor to draw closer to friends and make light of hardships. How many of us have been marooned with schoolboys on a desert island? Ever float down the Mississippi on a raft?

I’m not worried that we’ll suddenly chuck all the great, dark works of literature. Shakespeare will always have his place, and every kid (and adult) should read and reread To Kill a Mockingbird. But I think we should read more books that reflect our humanity, not just our inhumanity.

Gender Equality: Highest Priority!

Today there are many engines for positive change around the world, including powerful and inexpensive technologies, near-ubiquitous vaccines, and improving NGO-private sector collaboration in developing countries. But if I had to choose the one most important driver for good, it would be the empowerment of women.

While it’s dangerous to generalize about men and women, science does point to some important differences. “Research tells us that women invest more of their earnings than men do in their family’s well-being—as much as ten times more. They prioritize things like healthcare, nutritious food, and education. When a mother controls her family’s budget, her children are 20 percent more likely to survive—and much more likely to thrive.”*

Imagine if men and women were equal. Trillions of dollars would go toward health, education, food and childcare. While technology gains, civil society and anti-corruption programs are important, the change in priorities that would flow in the wake of gender equality would transform the world for good.

And many trends bode well. All over the world walls are coming down that have kept women out of male-dominated professions. Girls’ participation in education has grown a great deal in recent decades (see chart below), but atrocities against girls in Pakistan and Nigeria remind us that there are misanthropic (and misogynistic) forces that violently oppose female empowerment.

12_fig_girls_secondary_sml

Chart: Female Secondary Education Participation, 1975 and 1997**

The Charlie Hebdo tragedy reminds us that we must stand for our values, even if our opponents are gun-toting nihilists. Like free speech, gender equality must be a highest priority.

*from “Why Development Begins with Women” by Melinda Gates

**http://www.unesco.org/education/tlsf/mods/theme_c/mod12.html?panel=1#top

Millions of Children’s Lives, Simple Solutions

“In the category of stunning, heartening, woefully underreported good news: In 2000, an estimated 9.9 million children around the world died before age 5. In 2013, the figure was 6.3 million. That is 3.6 million fewer deaths, even as the world’s population increased by about 1 billion.”

This stat, from Michael Gerson’s article in the Washington Post, reflects the continuing avalanche of positive health trends of the last few decades. Gerson gives a shout out to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, an organization that supports vaccinations for some 60% of the world’s children. Gavi does what government programs try but usually fail to deliver–a successful program with low overhead that shuts down when the job is done. Gavi tapers off its subsidization of vaccines over time as local vaccination infrastructure scales up.

We all know how deep and detailed the reporting of the Ebola crisis was. (Now that it’s getting under control we hear much less.) But this much more important story–think of the thousands of children saved from death for every Ebola death–yet stories about vaccinations saving millions never make it to the front page.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/michael-gerson-a-global-conspiracy-of-health/2014/12/18/dc79da7c-86f9-11e4-9534-f79a23c40e6c_story.html#b12g22t20w14

Of Peshawar and Picture Shows

Two stories have dominated the news in the last 48 hours, one tragic, the other pathetic.

The tragedy is of course the massacre of more than a hundred children in a Pakistan school. This, though a new low for the Pakistani Taliban, is not novel. Only the scale shocks anew.

The pathetic one centers on The Interview, Sony’s action comedy movie that just got scrapped because of threats from North Korea’s crypto-anachro Communist state.

What can anyone say to fully describe the deep misanthropy of the Taliban? Kill hundreds of children as a matter of policy?

And how insecure can Kim Jong-un be if he’s worried about a Seth Rogan adventure comedy?

The slimmest of silver linings in all of this Tarantino-meets-Kubrick surrealism is that “this is the enemy.”  It is utterly awful that the Pakistani Taliban murder hundreds of children every year. And North Korean hacking and terrorism threats are small potatoes compared with what Kim Jong-un and his minions do to North Koreans.

It is nonetheless clear that “this is not a winning policy.” There will be no groundswell of support in the wake of these actions. Communism and fascism had more appeal; one promised equity and the other unity. The Taliban and the North Korean government offer nothing. We know that they are doomed. The scary question is “How many innocents will die before they’re done?”

The Kids Are Alright

The kids today! They’re spoiled, ill-mannered, immature dunderheads!

If you relate to this (exaggerated) sentiment about today’s youth, you’re not alone. Ever since the first adult witnessed pubescent immaturity, great thinkers have dismissed the younger generation: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” Or so wrote Aristophanes in one of his plays.

Well, it turns out that the greatest generation didn’t defeat Hitler or invent the transistor. Today’s youth are the greatest generation. In a recent Washington Post article, David Finkelhor uses data to lay bare how great our children are. They’re less likely to commit crimes, bully others, commit suicide, engage in premarital sex, drink, and engage in risky behavior. And because of the Flynn Effect, which shows no signs of going away, each generation is smarter than the previous (at least as measured on IQ tests).

And if the world keeps doing what it’s doing, this generation’s children will be the next greatest generation.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-kids-are-all-right-after-all/2014/11/26/63b9e494-70fe-11e4-8808-afaa1e3a33ef_story.html

Urban Slums: Places of Hope and Opportunity?

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, billions of people have moved from bucolic country to teeming metropolis? Why would someone uproot his family from a natural farm setting to a cardboard shack in the squalor of a Rio favela or Calcutta slum?

The numbers reveal much about the compelling lure of the city. Refugee crises involve millions, but this greatest of demographic trends involves billions. Many are driven to cities for refuge. A Rwandan friend fled his country for the South B slum in Nairobi. From there he eventually made his way to the U.S., where he now lives a life of wealth and opportunity unimaginable to the people he grew up with.

But most of these billions move to the slums by choice. When I visited the South B slum in Nairobi last year I was surprised how orderly things were. I expected the smell of raw sewage, but I only encountered strong whiffs of it when I walked along the slick mud slopes of the Nairobi “River” (something we’d deem a stream). In South B you could get pretty much anything you need, including cell phones, the latest electronics, TVs, Internet connections, business services, fresh produce, clothing both traditional and hip, music, hair stylings and beauty treatments.

As I walked the narrow pedestrian alleys that penetrate every corner of South B I heard children singing and reciting lessons in their classrooms. Though super-densely peopled, South B is quite domesticated. Many the dwellings had concrete foundations and sturdy walls and roofs made of corrugated steel. Heavily laden clotheslines snaked through the alleys and, just above that, power lines. No need for phone lines in this age of ubiquitous cell service.

So if you live in a developing country and want access to water, education, health services, and other mod-cons, the city’s the place to be, even if it means living in a slum. To our rich sensibilities, the slums seem squalid and claustrophobic, but to new arrivals, the slums–and the nearby modern city centers–teem with possibility and opportunity: work, education, health care, goods, entertainment, and participation in the wide world.

The Rise of DAD

When I was a kid–do I sound like my last post?–my father was an affable, sweet-hearted yet somewhat distant, usually benevolent parent. However, Mom did most everything. When Dad came home from work we kids ran to the door and regaled him with our love. I remember him hoisting me on his shoulders as he walked through the house to greet Mom. I also remember the five o’clock stubble against my cheek; it was a good feeling, despite the rough scratchiness, ’cause it was Dad.

But except for fishing trips on vacations and occasional help with Pinewood Derby cars and other projects, Dad was kind of in the background. I don’t think he changed any diapers. And he didn’t have much of a clue about what I was doing in school, with friends, etc. It’s sad, isn’t it? But he did provide for the family, as he was expected to do. I believe he was following the training of his parents and the norms of the era. His mother immigrated to America in her early 20s, and his father lived with relatives because his father, my great-grandfather, was a hardcore alcoholic. It’s a cliche but I believe it: They were doing the best they could. Dad did the best he could.

Nowadays fatherhood is worse in some ways and better in others. There are plenty of dads in the background…or not around at all. In fact, many more kids grow up without a dad in the house than kids did in the 60s. According to a Pew study that gleaned its findings from US Census data, “only 11 percent of children younger than 18 in the United States were living apart from their fathers in 1960, compared with 27 percent in 2010.” 

But the kind of dads I see all over the country hearten me a great deal. I see more fathers snuggling, playing with, schlepping, talking to and walking with their children in a way that most fathers did not do very often when I was growing up. Pew research backs up this perception:

“Pew also reported that fathers who do live with their children are spending more time with them and taking part in a greater variety of activities with them. The amount of time that married fathers spent with children living in their household rose from an average of 2.6 hours per week in 1965 to 6.5 hours per week in 2000, the Pew researchers noted, referencing statistics from “Changing Rhythms of American Family Life,” (Russell Sage Foundation, 2007).

That’s nearly a threefold increase in time fathers spent with their children.

Fatherhood today is a mixed bag. It would be better if more fathers lived with their children. But the dramatic increase in the time dads spend with their kids is a very good thing. It is no longer rare to see stay-at-home dads taking care of their children full time. And for the kids today, engaged fatherhood is a new normal.