A suggested reading list to expand narrow minds

March 18, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

This time those wacky Californians might have a point.

Don't be put off by San Francisco's proximity to Oakland, that hotbed of infamy whose school system misleaders came up with the Great Ebonics Scam of 1996. Keith Jackson and Steve Phillips are school board trustees across the bay in San Francisco. Recently they proposed expanding the San Francisco school system's required reading list from three books to 10. Four authors on the expanded reading list should be minorities, Jackson and Phillips declared.

Predictably, we conservatives - in our perpetual quest to prove ,, that nothing snaps shut more quickly or tightly than a conservative mind - went on the warpath. How dare Jackson and Phillips suggest expanding a reading list that already includes Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"? Aren't these three works the crowning achievement of Western literature?

That's not the point. Jackson and Phillips didn't propose yanking any of the three books required. They just want to add more. That's perfectly reasonable. Any school system that has only three books on a required reading list needs that list expanded.

News stories about the ruckus indicate that conservatives figure requiring white kids in suburbia to read works by nonwhite authors might cause them irrevocable brain damage and bring about the collapse of Western civilization as we know it. According to a wire story, Lance Izumi - a fellow at the conservative Pacific Research Institute - said Jackson's and Phillips' idea was "political correctness run amok."

Actually, Izumi is guilty of knee-jerk reaction run amok. Let's forget for a moment that conservatives not only invented political correctness but elevated the phenomenon to a cultural imperative. Are Izumi and other conservatives seriously suggesting that no minority author has written a work worthy of ** being included on a high school required reading list?

Let's go back to 1940. Conservatives won't mind this, since we spend most of our time pining away for the past. Richard Wright's "Native Son" was published that year. It has since been hailed as an American classic. That's American, not African-American, classic, my conservative friends. One critic thought so much of it that he said the book changed American culture forever.

Let's fast forward to 1952, when Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" hit the bookstores. Ellison won the National Book Award for the novel, which many have hailed as the best ever written. One year later, James Baldwin published his first novel, "Go Tell It on the Mountain." Like "Invisible Man," Baldwin's first novel was superb. It was nominated for the National Book Award but didn't win it. Baldwin said he later got word that his book should have been a shoo-in to win the award, but that some folks couldn't bear the thought of a black author winning it two years in a row.

American students will be enriched if they are required to read "Native Son," "Invisible Man" and "Go Tell It on the Mountain." If they are not enriched, those books certainly won't cause them any more harm than works by white, male authors that have been crammed down their throats for years. In fact, let's talk about some really insidious political correctness going on here. Some authors only make it to required reading lists not because of the quality of their work, but precisely because they are white and male.

Leading this list is one Joseph Conrad, author of "Heart of Darkness." For years "Heart of Darkness" has been hailed as a stellar literary work. I finally read it and concluded it was a sack of reeking, convoluted screed hiding between two book covers, masquerading as a novel. I don't think I'm alone in that opinion. I said as much to a group of students at Joppatowne Senior High School in Harford County recently. Some of them had been subjected to "Heart of Darkness" - probably as punishment for some transgression, since heaven knows the novel has no other useful purpose - and applauded my comment enthusiastically.

It's not only our schools that need an expanded reading list. Conservatives, judging from our reaction to the concept of expanded reading lists, need to do some more reading of our own. I heartily recommend the three books mentioned above. Add Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God," Alice Walker's "The Third Life of Grange Copeland" and Toni Morrison's "Beloved" to the list.

Conservatives are advised to read these slowly and to consult their physicians first. These novels will expand their minds, a dangerous and excruciating endeavor for ones that are already closed.

Pub Date: 3/18/98

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