Schools should seek positive literature: How negativity in the syllabus carries over into students’ lives

By on November 13, 2013
Callie-TuftsKatie O

In ninth grade English I was introduced to “Black Boy,” “Lord of the Flies,” “The Grapes of Wrath.” As a sophomore it was “Wuthering Heights,” “Into the Wild” and “Fahrenheit 451.” By the end of high school I was through Hamlet, Macbeth, and countless other classics, and there was a common trend in most of my readings: negativity.

To preface this piece I need to clarify that I am an English major. I started reading novels in elementary school, and by the end of middle school I was reading Homer’s epics for fun. I consider literature to be my first love, and I think that learning about it is a fundamental aspect of being educated and well rounded.

That said, I have many qualms with the way literature is taught it the academic world.

The majority of the books that make the ranks of school reading lists have themes of rape, violence, inequality and suicide. It seems as though such unhappy ideas are a part of the criteria in judging great literature, and yet this is unnecessary, and perhaps unhealthy for the youths who are required to do the readings.

In a society where the violent simulations in video games is a hot topic based on its impact for children, it is important to ask what other influences children are receiving inside the classroom.

For 10 years now, I have been immersed in an educational system that teaches me true depth in literature is almost exclusively achieved through tragedy, which quite often translates into suicide.

My literary portrayals of suicide began with “The Outsiders” in middle school, and progressed through books like “The Sound and the Fury,” “Death of a Salesman” and “The Things They Carried.” All of these pieces featured characters who killed themselves, and with each new story my heart broke a bit more. Their deaths were often romanticized, noble, or tragic, and at times I was made to believe that they were necessary.

If suicide is depicted as a glamorous, or almost worse: as a normal act in literature, what is stopping readers from taking that path in their real lives?

According to a 2010 survey by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicides accounted for 20 percent of deaths among 15- to 24-year-olds; 15.8 percent of students reported having seriously considered attempting suicide in the 12 months before taking the survey.

These risks are not limited to impressionable high schoolers. According to suicide.org, the second-leading cause of death among college students is suicide. Though it isn’t proven, the combination of college stress and painfully negative works of literature such as “The Jungle” may be granting students a rather dire outlook on the world, and life in general.

The idea here is not that the entire English curriculum in the United States should be thrown out. I am simply suggesting that it be reworked, so that literature accurately portrays a complex world. Suicide, violence, and tragedy are certainly all parts of life, but joy, love, and inspiration are equally, if not more prevalent.

The value in a work of literature should not be determined by the darkness of its subject matter, but rather by the stylistic aspects of the writing, and the ultimate message that comes across, and this can be found in a wide variety of works. For every depressing or negative book on the syllabus, there should be a more upbeat or optimistic counterpart. What students read in class is important, but it doesn’t need to be an impediment to their mental health.

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