Letter: In decrying Salinger lesson, Gould misses point of education

Posted 9/30/20

To the editor:

Leaving aside the question of whether (or how) a Facebook debate deserves front-page, above-the-fold coverage in a small town paper, I feel a need as a citizen to comment on Daryl …

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Letter: In decrying Salinger lesson, Gould misses point of education


To the editor:

Leaving aside the question of whether (or how) a Facebook debate deserves front-page, above-the-fold coverage in a small town paper, I feel a need as a citizen to comment on Daryl Gould’s objections to the teaching of The Catcher in the Rye.

There are a number of ways to teach the reading of a text, with the intention of provoking different critical responses in the reader. One of these is the Theory of Authorial Intent, i.e. teaching a text in the broader context of the intention of the author and the social and cultural influence the author may have been working under during its creation. In some cases (Gulliver’s Travels, for example), it’s pointless to teach a text without author intent. Gould asserts that this is not a valid mode of criticism and, although I loathed my critical theory classes with every fiber of my being, I’m facing down my triggers to correct the record. Teaching a text under the theory of Authorial Intent is a common, valid, and valuable practice. Furthermore, encouraging students to draw parallels between an historical text and real-world issues isn’t ‘activism,’ social justice or otherwise -- it’s a teaching tool commonly referred to as making ‘text-to-world’ connections. It is also, one could argue, sort of the entire point of reading.

Gould goes on to posit that critical thinking can only happen in a vacuum (I’m paraphrasing); that giving students a context for a work of literature before they begin reading defeats the purpose of teaching the text. While I’ve certainly been assigned reading in my academic life without context, only to discuss the work more fully ex post facto, there are many reasons why an instructor may want to introduce contextual issues before the reading begins. This is especially true with Salinger’s novel, a novel of such cleverness that it is certainly possible for young minds (or less enquiring minds) to absorb the story at face value, missing the many cultural tensions and influences that moulded the work. The relevance and value of the text was up for debate from the very moment it was published (The New Yorker actually declined to publish an excerpt, even though they’d previously printed six other Salinger stories) and continues to be a fascinating debate today. It is boring, milquetoast, even lazy instruction to teach The Catcher in the Rye without sharply examining its place in the canon.

To stick one’s head in the sand about the social justice issues making front page headlines and then to continue teaching works of literature without any reference to the questions or anxieties our children have about their changing world would be an egregious loss; is to miss the point of engaging children in discussion about reading, and indeed, it is to miss the point of reading at all. Ironically, those that accuse over-educated elites of working and teaching in a bubble of privilege are now the ones insisting we form a new bubble around our children. And as these children have access to the same social media that Gould favors for his debate stage, I don’t believe it’s hyperbole to suggest that ship has sailed, and that to leave conversations of ‘social justice’ to our “parents and grandparents” is to pretend we live in a simpler time, when Salinger’s Holden Caulfield could run about unquestioned, narrating his story with quips and melancholy, smoking cigarettes and skipping school.

Raising questions of privilege in the context of historical American literature need not, as Gould suggests, lead to feelings of guilt or inferiority. It’s odd that he feels like this would be the outcome of an academic discussion or would lead to questions about “morality.” It is possible to acknowledge privilege (and actively work to dismantle it) without creating a culture of shame; and with a solid foundation of reading and reasoning skills, teens can engage with their world, and with the books they are given to read, confident they are armed to the teeth with the sharpest intellectual weapons we can give them.

We owe it to them to confront our own discomforts and fears so that they may begin their adult lives better equipped. And we can learn from them—if we want to.

“Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement.” - JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

Kate Dickson

Bridge Street, Warren


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