High-school students: Did you stand last week with Homer on the walls of ancient Troy, watching awestruck as Achilles' pride brought a vast army to the edge of disaster? Have you walked the mean streets of Victorian London with Oliver Twist? Before you graduate, will you and Mark Twain navigate the mighty Mississippi? Will you share Hester Prynne's shame as she's branded with a scarlet letter for her illicit love?
Today, too few teenagers embark on the literary quests for wisdom and adventure that timeless classics offer. Many American schools no longer teach these books. In the 1960s, the cry of "relevance" led some to trade Hamlet for the adolescent angst of Holden Caulfield in "The Catcher in the Rye." Later, obsessions with multiculturalism, racism and sexism made politically correct books like Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" de rigueur.
Now we're taking another giant leap away from greatness toward mediocrity. The New York Times recently profiled an instructional approach called Reading Workshop -- "part of a movement to revolutionize the way literature is taught in America's schools." Reading Workshop can be implemented in various ways. Generally, however, it involves allowing students to choose the books they read -- with few restrictions and minimal teacher guidance -- instead of studying a serious work of literature as a class.
The movement has been around at least a decade. But it's gaining steam in schools from New York City to Seattle, according to the Times.
The Times focused on Lorrie McNeill, a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher from suburban Atlanta who is taking the Reading Workshop approach to the max. She's delegated all decisions about which books to read to her students, who discuss them individually with her or with classmates and write about them in journals.
McNeill no longer teaches books of substance, such as "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl." Instead, her students are reading chick-lit books, the Captain Underpants comic-book-style novels, or pop literature such as "Chaka! Through the Fire," a memoir by R&B star Chaka Khan. Though some students have chosen more challenging books, all are contemporary titles.
A fundamental assumption behind Reading Workshop is that what kids read doesn't matter as much as the fact that they do read.
"I feel like almost every kid in my classroom is engaged in a novel that they're actually interacting with," enthuses McNeill. "Whereas when I do 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' I know that I have some kids that just don't get into it."
Reading Workshop's goal is to make students lifelong readers. But it's hardly self-evident that reading about pop stars is a better use of kids' -- or anyone's -- time than playing video games or basketball.
In 2009, can we still argue persuasively that what young people read matters very much?
It's clear, for starters, that kids who read books by masters of the literary craft are more likely to become skilled and thoughtful readers, writers and thinkers themselves.
But the reasons for reading good literature go well beyond this.
Young people -- like human beings everywhere -- face vital questions in life: What does it mean to be a true friend? What should I do when principle and self-interest conflict? How can I act in the face of fear?
In struggling to answer, however, they have limited resources to draw on. They see the world through the restrictive cultural prism of their own time and place. For many, teen actress Miley Cyrus or rapper Kanye West may be the ideal of greatness.
Good literature offers young people a way to transcend these limitations. Through classics that have spoken to readers for generations, they can come to see the myriad ways that people across the globe and through time have met the challenges of the human condition.
Am I convinced that the world is against me? Anne Frank's story can show me how fortunate I am. Do I wonder what real courage looks like? I can learn by standing at the guillotine in the French Revolution with Dickens' Sidney Carton in "A Tale of Two Cities."
By reading good books, young people can watch the consequences of characters' choices and actions unfold. As they gain insight into why others' lives have succeeded or failed, they become equipped to live more wisely and well themselves.
Unless our children's classroom reading aspires to such goals, we may find it hard to explain why the television and the game controller won't do just as well.
Katherine Kersten is a Twin Cities writer and speaker. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.