Is 'The Great Gatsby' great enough to include in English lit. courses? ACLU says it is - Must Read Alaska
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Thursday, April 15, 2021
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Is ‘The Great Gatsby’ great enough to include in English lit. courses? ACLU says it is

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Wednesday night’s Mat-Su School Board meeting was dedicated to hearing from those who oppose the removal of five books from the English curriculum at district high schools, including The Great Gatsby.

Most who testified were from the borough, but notably, the ACLU of Alaska gave prepared testimony opposing the board’s action from a newcomer from New York City.

Triada Stampas, the policy director for the ACLU of Alaska, told the board that the ACLU has a long history of opposing censorship of any kind.

“From books and radio to film, television, and the Internet, we have consistently fought to make sure Americans have the right to say, think, read, and write whatever they want, without fear of reprisal. The First Amendment does not allow the government to get rid of or limit the use of books or ideas because they are controversial, unpopular, or offensive. Opposition to censorship is especially important in our schools, because students do not lose their constitutional rights ‘at the schoolhouse gate,'” Stampas told the board.

Stampas worked for the New York City Food Bank for over 10 years before taking a job in Alaska with the ACLU. She is a Harvard graduate with a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.

Her testimony, like 90 percent of the other testimony given to the board on Wednesday evening, asked for reinstatement of the following works of fiction: The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou, Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, and The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

All of the books have their place in literature, but even liberal literary critics find The Great Gatsby to be lacking in merit.

“The book is short, easy to read, and full of low-hanging symbols, the most famous of which really do hang low over Long Island: the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock; the unblinking eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, that Jazz Age Dr. Zizmor. But the real appeal of the book, one assumes, is what it lets us teach young people about the political, moral, and social fabric of our nation. Which raises the question: To our students, and to ourselves, exactly what kind of Great Gatsby Package are we selling?,” writes Kathryn Schulz in New York Magazine, a liberal publication.

“It is an impressive accomplishment. And yet, apart from the restrained, intelligent, beautifully constructed opening pages and a few stray passages thereafter—a melancholy twilight walk in Manhattan; some billowing curtains settling into place at the closing of a drawing-room door—Gatsbyas a literary creation leaves me cold. Like one of those manicured European parks patrolled on all sides by officious gendarmes, it is pleasant to look at, but you will not find any people inside,” Schulz argued.

“Indeed, The Great Gatsby is less involved with human emotion than any book of comparable fame I can think of. None of its characters are likable. None of them are even dislikable, though nearly all of them are despicable. They function here only as types, walking through the pages of the book like kids in a school play who wear sashes telling the audience what they represent: OLD MONEY, THE AMERICAN DREAM, ORGANIZED CRIME. It is possible, of course, to deny your readers access to the inner lives of your characters and still write a psychologically potent book: I give you Blood Meridian. But to do that, you yourself must understand your characters and conceive of them as human,” she wrote.

“Fitzgerald fails at that, most egregiously where it most matters: in the relationship between Daisy and Gatsby. This he constructs out of one part nostalgia, four parts narrative expedience, and zero parts anything else—love, sex, desire, any kind of palpable connection. Fitzgerald himself (who otherwise expressed, to anyone who would listen, a dazzled reverence for his own novel) acknowledged this flaw. Of the great, redemptive romance on which the entire story is supposed to turn, he admitted, “I gave no account (and had no feeling about or knowledge of) the emotional relations between Gatsby and Daisy.”

Instead of understanding his own characters, Fitzgerald seemed to be preoccupied with “precision-engineering his plot, chiefly, and putting in overtime at the symbol factory,” Shulz said.

But the ACLU of Alaska wants it featured in English classes, because if the school board is opposed to it, then the ACLU will favor it, regardless of its merit.

It’s time to retire The Great Gatsby as a “taught” book in high school. Thousands of other titles are more worthy, and to lean on this one is laziness on the part of educators. (This is a point that the author of this blog tried to make to Mr. Ed Ferguson, high school English literature teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School, many years ago, without success.)

The Mat-Su School Board will continue with testimony two weeks from now, at its next regularly scheduled meeting. Meanwhile, readers should feel free to discuss the merits of The Great Gatsby or any of the other works in question, in the comment section below. There will not be a quiz.

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Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

Latest comments

  • Not many kids would be interested in reading any of the proposed “banned” books. The most impressionably aged kids that might be in ‘danger’ from reading them, would rather read ‘Hardy Boys” or “Nancy Drew”, not the intellectually complicated works. What kid wants to read about a scam artist or read other stories that have no relevance to their own experiences or expectations? None I know or know of. Another case of “much ado about nothing”. If anything needs to be banned, it’s the attempts to ban books. Bad case of the school board trying to tell everyone else what is right and wrong for their kids. That was one of Hitler’s and Stalin’s opening gambits and it’s going on in China right this minute. Burn/ban any book that didn’t agree with him/them. Not the American way.

    • They aren’t burning or banning books. Just not making them part of the required curriculum. They are still available.

  • “It’s time to retire The Great Gatsby as a “taught” book in high school. Thousands of other titles are more worthy, and to lean on this one is laziness on the part of educators.”
    Well, you are certainly entitled to your opinion, but it is just that. I am not a fan of Hemingway, but that doesn’t mean he should be excluded from reading lists. I find Mark Twain to be tiresome, at times, but he has much to share. Does that mean I have the right or duty to campaign to have it excluded from school studies because something might be better?
    Where would you be on such books as “Ulysses” or “Death in Venice” or “Romeo and Juliet?” I’m pretty sure there is someone, somewhere out there who would find these objectionable. How about the Bible. Or the Koran. Or the Bhagavad Gita?
    That brings us to the whole subject of censorship. How would you feel about me being able to censor whatever I thought objectionable in, say, MRAK? Surely there are news blog that are more worthy. Is that proof of laziness on your part? Does that make MRAK a suitable target for censorship?
    The claim that the ACLU is in favor of something just because the school board is against it is simply gratuitous. Does that imply that if the board wants something included in programming the ACLU would be against it? And why is the board even part of the selection process? Don’t they trust that the professionals in public school education know what they are doing?
    All these arguments have been made in the past over and over again with the almost universal outcome that censorship of literature is either demagogic, religious, or political. I expected better from you, Suzanne.

      • OK, you’re right, but I can hope.

    • Look, we are all adults here unlike in schools.

    • Greg,
      So, if anyone doesn’t confirm your opinion, you expect better of them? You wouldn’t be one of those ‘leftists”, would you? Insults and innuendo belong where I think you come from. The left, with only words of scorn and demeaning for anyone with a differing opinion or the nerve to say the truth.
      I don’t agree with ACLU very often but their position on ‘book banning’ is right on. Censorship seems to be a major goal of the left. Go back where you came from.

    • Don’t they trust that the professionals I public school education know what they are doing?

      Hahahahaha. What a stupid question! The whole reason we have school boards is to represent the people who are paying the ” professionals.” We definitely think they know what they are doing and we have to constantly keep watch over them because of that!

    • The American Communist Lawyers’ Union is fundamentally anti-democracy and anti-American; of course it opposes something because the duly, democratically elected government proposes it. If Greg R. isn’t a lockstep union teacher, he learned his union dogma from one. They also don’t believe that a duly elected government should have any authority over ” professionals,” a belief they share with most other public employees; see, e.g., the USDOJ/FBI. It is obscene that the “profession” that produces the worst educated kids in the US thinks the People’s representatives should defer to its judgment.

      It really is pretty much a moot point; kids don’t read, and most can’t read in any meaningful way. Most don’t have the attention span for more than 120 characters. To the extent they study at all, they don’t read the whole section or chapter to get any general grasp of the material, but rather they go to the practice questions and browse the chapter for the answers. If the class is pretty common, the odds are the test answers are online, so they’ll just copy them. When they’re done not one in a hundred could give you any general idea of what the chapter is about. It doesn’t matter if they’re in the curriculum or not; only a handful will read any of them. There’ll be a few suck-ups and a few with over-achieving parents that at least read some of it. They’ll do their little group projects in which everyone gets the same grade regardless of their level of participation and they’ll take a few easy tests, probably from an open book, and at the end they’ll all get their participation certificate. Fundamentally, if you’re going to have a literate and articulate kid, you have to do it at home.

    • I had eight children and one time calculated how many teachers I came into contact with. You can figure at the HS level alone with 6 classes X 4 years X 8 kids= 192. That doesn’t even count middle or elementary school. (And yes, there was some duplication because some of them had the same teachers.) But I figured I knew no less than 200. So for one of your comments, Greg, “Don’t they trust that the professionals in public school education know what they are doing?” I will answer with a great big NO! I know it’s a terrible cliche but when I left HS many of my fellow students went to college, got a liberal arts degree and became teachers because it was EASY. They are/were not “professionals” in any sense of the word. If I was to give a percentage from my own experience, I would say about 60% of teachers are neither really bad nor really good, just doing their jobs–my kids didn’t learn a lot but they got by, about 30% were absolutely in the wrong profession and were flat out awful and about 10% had a gift to teach. A couple of my kids also were unlucky enough to get a few more of the 30% than others. One daughter got several of the 10%. It’s just a gamble you take with public school. I wish now I had home-schooled because I would at least have known the teacher! Many of us do not trust teachers very much. I am also tired of teachers being placed on pedestals and throwing more money at their unions hoping to get a better outcome.

      • I am currently a teacher and despise what unions have done to the profession. I never needed a union, but resolved to get what I felt I was deserved by hard work. We sent our son to a public school, AND home schooled him. We didn’t rely solely on the teachers to educate him properly. I saw some socialist teachers trying to manipulate his thinking. That helped him to see the socialist professors in college and law school and helped him “play” the game for grades. He is now a state attorney. It takes both public education and responsible parents to educate a kid. Team teaching.

      • Gretchen brings up a good point here. Why did teachers go into teaching? Was it because it was easy? When I was in school, lo those many years ago, teaching was considered an honorable profession, elite almost. Most teachers came from the top ten percent of their class. Then things changed. School boards became hijacked by local people, without professional levels of knowledge about education, who complained that teachers were overpaid and under worked. Those boards just wanted to cut salaries and get by with a bargain basement education, because they were elected by people who wanted that. Standards dropped. Salaries slipped. The quality of teachers slipped. School became a drudge. OK, I admit that when I was in public school, it was a drudge, but I was educated to what I would call a C average, and I had a few teachers, old school, who upped the ante.
        Let’s do a comparison. Imaging that there were publicly elected officials who controlled the medical profession. They didn’t need qualifications to so do, just enough votes, and they would tell the medical doctors how they should practice their profession. Would you feel more confident knowing that your doctor was using standards established by people who ran a hardware store, or an auto shop, or was a member of the city council, than someone who had been to medical school? On the other hand, would you consult with an MD to get your car fixed?
        See where I’m going? It’s the pros in each specialty who should be taking point. Teachers have been increasingly marginalized for the past 40 years to where we don’t want to pay them what it takes to attract quality candidates. And I don’t mean to disrespect teachers, like Art Chance is so fond of doing, because many of them come, starry eyed, into the profession with enthusiasm and hope for a future and the professional quality to make it happen. Then they see what the real world is like, and then a lot of them leave.
        I propose an experiment. Offer each teacher in AK $150,000 a year to start. Put together a highly capable screening board, made up of education professionals, to find suitable candidates. Subject all hires to regular evaluations of performance, not based on arbitrary standards established by a one-size-fits-all template, but by the ability of students, comparatively, to learn. Allow teachers to collaborate to find the best mix of classes and teachers for each student. Let high achieving students mentor those students having trouble learning. I’m pretty sure that would work. You’d get a great education for the kids in the community, and you’d end up getting a great group of young adults who were capable of tackling the challenging world into which we will be thrusting them.
        But I harbor no delusions. This won’t happen. It could. Finland has a workable version already. But it would cost us too much. We’re happy enough with the cheap version. The one where we gripe because teachers are overpaid and get three months of vacation a year and can’t handle 33 students in their classes and have the temerity to form a union that tries to get them a working salary and that we say are so important because it’s “all about the kids” but show them no respect. You know, what I’m talking about. It’s the one that got us where we are today.

  • As a writer who has actually seen his writing thrown in the trash, and whose writings are most likely to provoke a violent response from certain people/groups…I had an immediate and strong response at the word “banned”. I would have wholeheartedly agreed with Ben Colder and the second to last sentence in Greg R’s comment (I don’t want anything to do with that last sentence GR!). However, in response to the original post Greg Forkner made a point which you really can’t argue against in this context…they’re kids. Look, we don’t give them full rights for a reason, so unless you’re advocating giving 15,16, and 17 year olds the right to vote, drink, smoke pot, have consensual sex, etc, ETC, then this debate is over! And Suzanne, that ‘New York City’ reference was a low blow, I expected more from you. It was a valid weakness, I expected you keep hammering at that weak spot!

  • I assume the School Board are elected officials with constituents. I assume they did not make the decision to remove the books from required reading in a vacuum.
    I’m sure any students who care to could start a book club after school. In a tree house.

  • Isn’t this curriculum for an elective class? If a child elects to not take this elective course that does not have these books on the curriculum could it be said that they are effectively electing to ban these books from their elective choice of class? No, it can’t be said that they are effectively electing to ban these books from their elective choice of class because that is just stupid. These books aren’t being banned they just aren’t being chosen for an elective class curriculum.

  • Text is taught and used extensively in English curriculum at A level-years just before university. My thoughts would be to teach it, but then discuss whether the accolade and veneration it has as a text is overblown. Speaking from UK as a teacher of many years, I find it interesting to explore almost as social commentary and then compare it alongside likes of Steinbeck, Dos Passos, and Upton Sinclair. As Dylan once sang “you’ve read all of F Scott Fitzgerald’s books, you’re very well read it’s well known.” That sums it up for me. Fitzgerald is held up as the great American zeitgeist author, but personally I think he is rather over-hyped.

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