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I Hate The Scarlet Letter!

I hated The Scarlet Letter. There I said it. I like the plot summary, great stuff, but Nathaniel Hawthorne’s actual writing makes me wish I were illiterate. This feeling is real. And yet, when my kids got to high school, I put it on their reading list. Why? Because it is what they should be reading.


We got about two chapters in and I wanted to gouge out my own eyes. I looked at the kids and asked, “Do you like this book?”


Sheepishly they replied, “No, not really.”


“Well then,” I said. “Let’s chuck it.”


I feel the need to point out that my kids have read “the classics.” Please don’t think that I just let them throw down any book that has some challenging vocabulary, but this whole experience gave me pause to think, “Am I only teaching this because it was what was taught to me?” More often than not, students are not the gatekeepers of their own education, and, if we are being honest, teachers aren’t either.


Teachers may have the freedom to put together their curriculum (but from what I hear from my “real” teacher friends that is less and less the case), but we are hobbled in a way by what our teachers taught us and their teachers taught them and so on and so on until someone with really bad taste decided that The Scarlet Letter was required reading. That history, on which the you should learn this stands, could really be nothing more than a sandcastle built out of habit.


The danger in learning what you should is that it causes stagnation. It leaves very little room for new voices or different points of view, particularly in the humanities. It seems like every 5 months there is a new math and the very nature of science is progress; however, history and literature can get stuck in the era of the dead white guy and get quite comfortable in their intellectual inertia.


There is something fitting about this revelation coming to me while reading The Scarlet Letter because, in many ways, forging a unique educational path can expose someone to the same public ridicule that Hester Prynne experiences. It can feel like wearing a big scarlet L for Loser as all the “better” homeschool moms talk about the fact their kids read Chaucer for fun. Meanwhile, when you say that your kid is reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, you get nothing but blank stares because this isn’t on any of the “What Your Child Must Read Before Graduation” lists.


If you love The Scarlet Letter and this entire post has had you clutching your pearls, I apologize. I know how you feel; I have a friend who doesn’t like Star Wars and that seems just as unbelievable to me and I’m sure my disdain for Hawthorne is to you. Really, The Scarlet Letter is just a symptom of a larger problem: we teach what we were taught and sometimes only because we were taught it. It is right and good to take a moment and re-evaluate what we are teaching our kids, and not just in terms of what books they read.


We all have attitudes and beliefs that have been handed down to us, and, because it is what we’ve always known, we assume it must be right. So we teach it to our kids and then they teach it to their kids and so on and so on. Each generation passing down the same thoughts, ideas, and traditions. Many, many of these are fantastic or innocuous, but we don’t really know that unless we take a moment and consider what we are passing down to the next generation.


Considering things doesn’t mean that we have to throw away ideas that hold value and truth in our lives. Quite the opposite. Looking at an issue can strengthen our belief in the thing, but maybe not. Maybe we are just reading The Scarlet Letter because it’s what we were taught to do. I just hope this doesn’t turn my kids into little Pearls. That kid was a pain in the butt.

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