It wasn’t until my second reading of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, over a decade after it first had been assigned to me by my public high school English teacher, that I understood that Jake’s dick didn’t work. The word “impotence” never shows up in the book, and in my teenage mind it didn’t pose a huge problem between him and Lady Brett. Couldn’t they just dry hump as everyone else in the tenth grade did? Abstract notions of emasculation—how that related to bullfighting, trench warfare, loss, diminution, dying—did not even occur to me.That particular novel seems like an odd choice for high-schoolers, not just because of its sexual import but also because it’s about disillusioned adults approaching middle age. I know reading is supposed to broaden a person, but developmentally teens have their own concerns to deal with.
Vargas-Cooper’s solution for such disconnects is for high-school classes to teach more nonfiction. However, that nonfiction could be just as foreign to teenagers’ concerns.
In fact, I recall reading a wide range of literature in high-school English: not just novels and plays and some poetry but also John McPhee and Joan Didion and other essayists. I don’t know how my high school in the 1980s compares to Vargas-Cooper’s, but from what I read today, I’m more concerned that today’s English classes are all about writing the five-paragraph essay demanded by tests instead of either good fiction or nonfiction.