A response to Alexander Nazaryan’s “Against Walter Dean Myers and the Dumbing Down of Literature: ‘Those Kids’ Can Read Homer.” New York Daily News, January 4, 2012.
Most children crawl before they walk and walk before they run. A few go on to become great runners who enjoy running all their lives, perhaps even becoming competitive track athletes. I was not one of them. As a teen I ran in PE and when it was necessary. Now that I am an adult, I walk frequently but run only in emergencies. Does that mean the time I spend walking is wasted or insignificant? Hardly.
Likewise young people must intellectually walk before they run. I am really tired of hearing, “Students need to read the classics,” as if those are the only books worth our time investment! It reeks of intellectual snobbery and elitism. Themes, characters, and most other literary devices in the classics are not dissimilar from those written today. But style and vocabulary? Therein lies the difference. Educators and experienced readers appreciate the turn of phrase, the perfect word choice, and elegant syntax so often found in classics, but very few of us came to these works on our own. Rather, we were taught to read and comprehend the beautiful yet unfamiliar language that was the vernacular when the books were written. The original readers of Virgil, Tolstoy, Dickens, et al, understood the language and context of their works, but today’s teens certainly do not. These works are at their instructional level, not their independent level. Yes, they can read and understand them when they are well taught but not as independent leisure reading. Use these works in the classroom. Teach from them and with them. Teach them with passion and verve, and hopefully some students will catch the spark and learn to love them on their own.
Contemporary literature has its place alongside the classics in our classrooms, libraries, homes and backpacks. Students who do not read Walter Dean Myers or other contemporary authors will almost certainly never willingly read Tolstoy. The young person who has read Myers’ Monster is better equipped to understand the theme “Small choices may determine one’s destiny” in The Odyssey than those students who have not. The classics have endured while lesser works from those times have vanished from history. The same will be true for today’s literature, and it would not surprise me if some of those future classics were authored by Walter Dean Myers.
Lastly, the complainant bemoans Myers’ appointment but seems to ignore the fact that he was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, not the National Ambassador for Literature in Education. Promoting reading is vastly different from encouraging critical analysis and review. We need an ambassador who encourages young people to read at school and at home every day of their lives, not just in the classroom!