Summer Porn Reading Lists (Part 1)

Over the last week to ten days, I’ve become aware of a phenomenon which didn’t exist when I was in high school, or getting ready to enter my first year of university study:  The Summer Reading List.  Of course, I was in school sometime during the paleolithic era, and I realize much has changed.  The school year ended, teachers offered words of encouragement to read–anything–during the long summer break.  Smart kids eagerly read stuff well beyond their grade level, according to interests they didn’t have time to pursue during the academic year.  Less-smart kids hung out at the Grand Union, smoking cigarettes and acting scary, waiting for the next session of the prison-avoidance program called public education to begin.

Reading during the summer was an option.  Those who chose it generally put themselves at an advantage for the next academic year, having kept their skills sharp and expanding their ability to organize, assess, and interpret the information they acquired.  Those who did not had some catching up to do–and usually, they did not.

We had no assigned reading between the end of one grade and the start of another.  If we had siblings or friends a year or two ahead of us, we might ask them what they had read in the grade we were about to begin.  Rarely, we might find those books and skim them prior to the start of the new school year.  The assumption, however, was we would come to whatever literature the syllabus covered having no prior experience of it, and the teachers would lead discussions to help us understand it from a number of vantage points, then assign essays and projects to assess our understanding of what we had read.

The unspoken message was, if it is important enough to assign, it is important enough to take time in class to discuss and assess. It had a purpose in the overall educational program.  It needed to be supervised by people who understood it (probably why we didn’t have assigned frog dissections over the summer–and why such things are pretty well unheard-of to this day).

We also didn’t have “freshman required reading” which we were to have completed prior to arriving on college campuses to start our first year.  Readiness to begin higher education study was assumed to be demonstrated through high school transcripts, standardized tests, admissions essays and interviews, and (in my case) musical auditions.  (Yes, I have a bachelor’s degree in music.  It was the easy way out.  I figured I only needed to count to 6 and know the alphabet through G.)

So, I’m puzzled by news of summer reading lists, both for high school students and for those entering elite universities. But I also feel I’ve missed out, because it must be a great deal more exciting than anything I would have chosen for myself.

Apparently, students (or their parents) are convinced they have been assigned to read pornography.

They are objecting on religious/moral grounds to such works having been assigned.  It is their right to do so.  Indeed, there is something admirable about both objectors:  Ms. Sims is interested enough in her son’s education to have at least perused the materials he was to have read over the summer.  Mr. Grosso challenges Duke University’s choice of material for the Class of 2019 “Common Experience” (it is not the only book on the list, but one of about six).

Of course, I’d find the religious/moral objections much more convincing had they been issued closer to the beginning of the summer, rather than immediately prior to the start of the new academic session. (The timing simply raises the suspicion that they’ve been hanging in front of the contemporary Grand Union equivalent, smoking cigarettes and looking scary, rather than doing their homework.)

I wish I could have invoked the “religious objection” any time I had an assignment I didn’t care to do.  Having not been raised in a particularly devout environment, it wasn’t a plausible option for me.  And doing things I objected to did not harm me–it made me smarter, more capable, more open minded, more analytical, more creative.  More human, and more humane.

And it made me challenge my definitions and broaden my horizons.  I started the music program at York University sincerely believing “music” was Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Stravinsky.  In my first year, I was exposed to Eskimo throat music, gamelan, and atonality.  And I hated it–at first.  It still isn’t what I tune my car radio to, but now I understand those genres and the cultures in which they arose and developed.

It is important to note  I was not just thrown books (or, as would have been appropriate for music, sound recordings), and told to go experience these things on my own, before I joined my fellow aspirants to musical knowledge.  They were carefully embedded in a curriculum, overseen by skilled musicians and musicologists, introduced at appropriate times, with guided discussions and well-designed assessments.

The two religious objectors and their objections raise a pair of related questions for me.  The first places the onus on the institutions; the second, on the individuals.

For me, the institutions must answer why these particular books (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot; and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel) were assigned.  What is their educational purpose, how do they contribute to the overall curriculum, how will understanding of these works be assessed?  (These are questions I had to answer about everything assigned to read, and every written or oral marked assignment, when the ministry training course I worked on was applying for validation through a low-quality higher education institution.  An elite institution such as Duke University, should be held to at least that standard.)

For the second question both Ms. Sims and Mr. Grosso, a challenge to their definitions of “pornography” might be beneficial–we must ask them to explain their use of the term better than Ms. Sims’ “in my opinion, this is pornography”.  There is nothing in Rebecca Skloot’s book that is even as “pornographic” as the instructions teenage girls get with their first box of tampons.  If this arouses a teenage boy to try the same thing, there are bigger issues–but please believe me when I tell you  the intention was not to produce sexual excitement.

Way back in the Dark Ages, about 1970-ish, by the way, schools used to show what could have been considered a pornographic movie to girls. In fifth grade.  The boys got an extra 20 minutes of recess. Yes, I know, the movie is only about 10 minutes long, but you always had to allow time for the film to break or the projector to do something stupid.  I already knew from (uhhh) first-hand experience what the movie was about, as I started quite early.  I got detention for making wisecracks indicating “That’s NOT what it looks like”, and similar comments to the effect this “becoming a woman” wasn’t a matter of just not feeling sorry for yourself and slapping on the lipstick most of us in fifth grade weren’t allowed anyway.

Mr. Grosso might have a slightly better case for a religious objection to pornography than Ms. Sims, as Fun Home does indeed depict (albeit in comic-book format) exactly two scenes–a total of about four frames in a 230+ page book–of lesbian sexual activity.

But does reference to, or even depiction of, sexual anatomy/activity automatically mean something is “pornography”? Does such reference or depiction eviscerate the books in question of their instructional value?

I would argue, in both the cases of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Fun Home, the answer is “no”.  However, the two books need to be read–especially by young people–in a guided environment where the educational purpose is clear and the instructional outcomes are carefully assessed.

Over the next few blog posts, I’ll take each of the books in turn, and then perhaps write a summary of how I would go about incorporating them–or really any–material into a well-structured curriculum.

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