In Defense of Ibsen

On the list of education problems facing the country, whether or not high school English curricula at tony private schools are adequately fine-tuned to interest teens in reading literary classics is pretty far down the list. Still, I suppose it’s a subject that may well be of interest to Washington Post readers many of whom perhaps send their children to fancy private schools. But while it’s fine for publications with upscale audiences to cover issues of concern to those audiences, it’s a bit problematic for them to conflate those issues with questions of broader national concern. Thus, Nancy Schnog probably shouldn’t have started out with this factoid:

It’s the time of year when I’m reminded of my twisted fate as a high-school English teacher. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, more teens and young adults are dropping literary reading than any other age group in America. “The percentage of 17-year olds,” it reports, “who read nothing at all for pleasure has doubled” in the past 20 years. I teach juniors and seniors — yes, 17-year-olds.

Realistically, if you want to look at aggregate statistics, Schnog’s students at the McLean School in Potomac, MD have very little to do with this issue. Rather, we need to worry about the large number of students, primarily from low-income families, who are dropping out of high school or graduating without acquiring basic literacy skills.

With those provisos, though, the suggestion that teachers should think a bit harder about exactly which books are likely to be interesting to teenagers makes sense to me. But of course tastes differ. She seems to suggest at one point that Henrik Ibsen’s plays are the sort of thing that shouldn’t be on the curriculum. And yet I definitely remember Ibsen — specifically The Doll House and The Master Builder — as some of my very favorite things I read in high school.