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English classes show bias toward literary fiction, miss opportunities

By Liam Martin ’10
THE ROUNDUP

Every year in English classes across the country, students are required to read books many of which are, quite frankly, boring.

These books, put rather indelicately by some as having been written by “dead white guys,” are assigned because they are considered to be “classics.”

In American Literature class, it is professed that we are being taught the history of American literature, but that assertion is at best a gross misrepresentation of the truth. What we are being taught is the history of American literary fiction, along with those few works of science fiction or fantasy that have managed to escape from the intellectual ghetto into which speculative fiction has been placed.

This is a nearly universal bias in the academic world, extending from high school to college and beyond.

We are made to read Hawthorne and Eliot, but Asimov and Heinlein are strangely absent. We are assigned Twain and Fitzgerald, but not a mention is made of Herbert or Le Guin. An entire literary movement, speculative fiction, has been almost completely ignored—perhaps because it produces works which the average person can read without having to have learned the proper techniques for decoding the pretentious obscurities of literary fiction.

We are taught about the modernists of the early twentieth century, but not about the futurists of the golden age of science fiction.

One undesirable effect of this one-sided presentation of literary history is a general impression on the part of students that books are boring and difficult to understand, and that reading is something to be done for homework and not for recreation.

Of course, assigning books like Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation,” Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” or Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End”—all of which are excellently written, well-crafted stories that provide ample material for philosophical speculation and class discussion—might not solve this problem.

I know from personal experience the mere fact that a book was assigned by a teacher may sometimes be enough to discourage me from reading it. But I certainly think it would be a step in the right direction.

Many teachers at Brophy have made this step, or begun to make it, choosing books beyond the already generally accepted “Fahrenheit 451” and “Slaughterhouse 5.”

Mr. Scott Middlemist ’87, the chair of the English department, has for two years assigned freshmen the science-fiction novel “Ender’s Game,” by Orson Scott Card.

“I chose it because it deals with many of the ‘Grad at Grad’ themes we discuss, and because I loved the book and thought students would as well,” Mr. Middlemist said. “I believe that many genres can work well in the classroom, as long as they focus on the main theme being discussed.”

He has also had students read “The Once and Future King” by T.H. White for 15 years, and taught William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” for two years.

No doubt other teachers also have and will continue to assign the occasional work of speculative fiction, but my concern is that a large portion of literary history is being treated as if it doesn’t exist, or isn’t good enough to be taught in the classroom.

Eliot and the modernists wanted to raise literature to the highest denominator, and they raised it so high that a reader cannot understand what they’re talking about without spending years in college learning to “appreciate” its “true genius.”

So I say give us a History of Speculative Fiction class, and let us read books by authors who care more about writing compelling literature than about showing off how smart they are.

One Response

  1. That’s my nephew! So eloquently put into words my thoughts from a few years ago as a Bronco!

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