Francine Prose, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read”
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read” Essay Introduction
In Francine Prose’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read: How American High School Students Learn to Loathe Literature”, the author is trying to explain why high school students are not asked to read more quality pieces of literature now a days. In my opinion I agree with Prose because I think the texts we read in high school are not challenging and not a lot of students enjoy the readings because they cannot relate. Prose uses the rhetorical strategy of degrading the books high school students are reading and she uses her own personal experiences to support her argument.
Literature in high schools
Throughout the essay, Prose argues that literature in high schools are dumbing down the English curriculum. She says books that are “chosen for students to read are for ‘obvious lessons. ’” However, Prose does not mention “great” books that students should read and that will help them to understand what the characters are feeling. “…The weaker novels of John Steinbeck, the fantasies of Ray Bradbury,” (424). Prose explains how her sons never read the better of Steinbeck’s novels in high school and she makes the assumption that all high school students read the so-called weaker Steinbeck novels.
English curriculum issue
She also makes an argument that the English curriculum is an important issue both culturally and politically. If both the teachers and books are not challenging the young students minds, then how can we expect them to understand challenging books. “We hear the more books are being bought and sold than ever before, yet no one, as far as I know, is arguing that we are producing and becoming a nation of avid readers of serious literature” (423). Again, Prose brings up her own personal experience and what she has heard. From what she has heard, people today are not reading “serious” literature.
She does not even go to defend her argument and further explain what she means by “serious literature” and “avid readers. ” The first point that Prose makes in her essay is that she is not satisfied with her two sons’ educations. Prose is the kind of person who has a huge passion for good books and she finds herself “appalled each year by the dismal lists of texts that my sons are doomed to waste a school year reading,” (422). She does not understand why the older and well-known authors are not being read in high school.
Prose uses a personal experience from her son’s sophomore English class. He had to read a “weeper and former bestseller by Judith Guest” (424), about a dysfunctional family dealing with a teenage son’s suicide attempt. “No instructor has ever asked my sons to read Alice Munro, who writes so lucidly and beautifully about the hypersensitivity that makes adolescence a hell,”(424). She again mentions books she approves of that should be read in English classes. Another big point in Prose’s essay is the assignments associated with high school literature.
Role of the teacher
She argues that teachers make students write around the books and not about the books they read. “No wonder students are rarely asked to consider what was actually written by these hopeless racists and sociopaths. Instead, they’re told to write around the book, or, better yet, write their own books,” (430). The assignments that teachers give these days are nto about the book or the story itself. They usually ask the student to rewrite the ending, or ask what the student would do if they were in the same situation as the character.
Prose argues that high school students are seen as having the same experience as some of the characters they read about, such as Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. “And is it any wonder that teenagers should complete these exercise with little but contempt for the writer who so pointlessly complicated and obfuscated a personal true story that sixteen year olds could have told so much more interestingly themselves? ” (431). However, in this part of her essay, Prose can get a little bias because she only talks about the negative assignments.
Books should only be discussed for their language
We all know that not all high school assignments are like the ones she mentions and she knows that too. The last point in Prose’s argument is that she only talks about that books should only be discussed for their language. This is one point where I disagree with her because I think that books can be discussed for their value as well as their language. Prose thinks that, “The present vogue for teaching “values” through literature uses the novel as a springboard for the sort of discussion formerly conducted in civics or ethics classes–,”(427).
I do not agree with this statement because not all high schools are able to offer civics classes. My high school, for example, did have a civics class but it was more driven towards the History end than English literature classes. So the only place for values in literature be discussed was during English class. Also, English class should not only be about the language. Students should learn the value of the story also through discussion and assignments.
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read” Essay Conclusion
In conclusion, Francine Prose does have a couple of good arguments in her paper, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read: How American High School Students Learn to Loathe Literature”. She argues her opinion that students in high school English classes are not getting good education because of the weak pieces of literature they are reading. Prose however, can be a little bias and bases to much of her essay on her personal experiences.
Works Cited Prose, Francine. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read: How American High School students Learn to Loathe Literature. ” Harper’s Magazine. 1999: 422-435. Print