This week’s question, from reader Isaac Napell: If you could make a single book, film, or album required material to graduate from high school, what would it be?
There are a ton of films I might want to make unwilling teenagers watch in hopes of inspiring the kind of empathy and understanding of other people’s basic humanity that I and most of the people I knew were lacking when we were kids, and which I consider the basic component of human maturity. But you can’t teach a lesson before its time, and you can’t make someone watch a film in the “right” way, by empathizing with its characters instead of laughing at them. So I’ll go with a pretty obvious choice: James Loewen’s 1995 book (or the recent updated version) Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. It isn’t a perfect book—it’s a little stuffy and snotty—but its analysis of how and why high-school textbooks simplify historical events and gloss over or grossly miscast key events is a solid introduction to the kind of critical thinking and healthy skepticism that everybody should have before, during, and after high school. In particular, it encourages young people to question why they’re being taught certain things in certain ways, and to get involved in digging deeper into real history instead of swallowing easy lessons. It also makes it clear that state-sponsored propaganda isn’t just one of those things other, evil countries do. Granted, the book may induce severe cynicism, but what high-schooler doesn’t already have a healthy dose of that?
This is tough—I’m tempted to say the Penthouse letters book we have sitting around the office, for a good laugh and lots of advice on how sex doesn’t actually work. But since I’m the second to answer this question, I’ll take the obvious A.V. Club answer and say something by Kurt Vonnegut, specifically God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. First of all, it’s an extremely easy read, broken up more into vignettes than any sort of twisty plot, and it presents Vonnegut at his Twain-iest, simple and declarative and truthful. There are ideas (not, God forbid, lessons) to take away about greed, selfishness, and cynicism that could certainly make young minds better. And then maybe the world.
I don’t know what these kids read in high school anymore. Time was, you couldn’t get your diploma without writing a book report on The Catcher In The Rye. Maybe it’s my flyover milieu, but I see a lot of blank stares when I mention it these days. But what novel better expresses the contradictions of being a teenager? Not caring at all, yet at the same time caring more than you could ever say? Feeling like everything around you is completely phony, yet not knowing how to be real? I’m continuously amazed by how fresh and alive Salinger’s distinctive prose sounds, and how preternaturally complete a portrait of adolescence Holden Caulfield manages to present in a relatively slim volume. Whenever I meet a college freshman who’s clearly in denial about her own complicated and contradictory facets, I want to press a copy of Catcher into her hand as our little secret—a mirror for the present, and a key to what lies beyond.
I guess there are two ways you could go with this: One would be to pass on some sort of inspirational message about hope, and believing in yourself, and how life is a journey that begins with the first step, and blah blah blah, in which case you may as well just pick Oh, The Places You’ll Go! and call it a graduation day. But for me, high school was spent digging a deep well of cynicism, a reservoir of suspicion and pessimism that’s continued to irrigate every single thing I do, and such platitudes would invariably have been met with a withering sneer. (The ’90s sure were angsty!) So if it were up to me (and thank God it isn’t), I’d recommend three different films as starting points on your road to devastating self-discovery. Although it’s been overshadowed somewhat by everything it’s inspired, The Manchurian Candidate still offers an overwrought but useful primer on the secret machinations of those in power—grist for the mill for wannabe fatalists who need someone to blame whenever they feel powerless. Similarly, Elia Kazan’s A Face In The Crowd will help engender a mistrust of politicians, celebrities, and anyone else who seems to have more talent and motivation than you do, which should serve you well whenever your own bids for success don’t pan out. Finally, while The Graduate seems to be the de facto Mike Nichols film for turning go-get-’em seniors into disillusioned college freshmen, I would substitute Carnal Knowledge, which paints life as a never-ending series of pointless, emotionally unfulfilling relationships that are doomed to failure—and in the end it won’t matter anyway, because you’ll inevitably be left lonely, impotent, and wondering what the hell just happened. Goodbye, yellow brick road!
I’m hesitant to assign any piece of literature or film to the adults of tomorrow, because I think high schoolers as a general rule will hate 90 percent of what they’re asked to read for school, based on principle alone. For every freshman who discovers he loves To Kill A Mockingbird, there are 10 who would sooner roll that book up and smoke it than read a single page because a teacher told them to. And that’s a shame, but those high-school classics—The Great Gatsby, Hamlet, etc.—are timeless, and will continue to inspire those who choose to be inspired by them. So I’d rather foist upon my hypothetical students something that’s admittedly a little less stimulating, but has just as much potential to change one’s outlook on life (and whose legacy is growing more endangered by the day): the newspaper. I’m of the belief that reading the daily paper—a physical newspaper, not online aggregators—is a habit that must be learned: We read the paper because our parents read the paper, because it’s what you do on Sunday morning, because it’s a way to unwind after work. However, judging by the nosedive the newspaper industry has taken over the last decade, fewer and fewer households are ingraining this instinct in their children. So why not force them to do it for school? Sure, most students would probably bitch that they could get the same experience from scanning the cnn.com homepage, but ideally, a few would see the pleasure in holding the day’s news in their hands, and keep it a part of their lives long after they graduate.
I could go specific with this one, but, truly, my only hope is that every kid in high school would have any critical film or music exposure whatsoever. My high school didn’t have a dedicated film-studies class on its schedule until my senior year, and even then, it was relegated to a three-day-a-week sort of deal—this was a school that didn’t have block scheduling, so such a decision was merely throwing our extremely competent teacher a bone. Plus, sadly, the class was poorly attended, and that’s putting it lightly. On the music front, while we had thriving band and chorus programs, little attention was paid to classic rock and modern music—and certainly little was taught about contemporary music theory or analysis. (Books: Yeah, there was a lot of that.) So don’t just beef up those programs, demand—nay, require—students to engage in serious discourse about the arts. Also, lay off the smack. (The More You Know…)
Sure, I could go all high-concept and recommend Naomi Klein’s No Logo or George Ritzer’s The McDonaldization Of Society, but here’s what I’d really give young high schoolers: The Simpsons Season Five DVD set. Television hadn’t seen such a consistently masterful satire before it aired in 1993 and 1994, and it probably hasn’t since. Not only will it provide youngsters with a stable of quotes on which to build inside jokes, but also, its 22 episodes are an encyclopedia of history and popular culture. The season’s guest stars alone offer excellent jumping-off points for some of the 20th century’s most noteworthy phenomena: George Harrison (The Beatles), the Ramones (punk rock), James Brown (soul music, race relations), and Buzz Aldrin (the space race), among many others. Not to mention the myriad movie references: Cape Fear (“Cape Feare” #9F22), Citizen Kane (“Rosebud,” #1F101), Thelma And Louise (“Marge On The Lam,” #1F03), Planet Of The Apes (“Deep Space Homer,” #1F13), The Man Who Knew Too Much (“The Boy Who Knew Too Much,” #1F19), The Graduate (“Lady Bouvier’s Lover,” #1F21). But the stars and references are just ancillary to the show’s powerful, hysterically executed themes. You won’t find something so life-changing in a more enjoyable or economical package.
You won’t find a stronger advocate for book-readin’ anywhere, but I’m going to go with a movie for this one, specifically Ikiru, Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece about a middle-aged bureaucrat (Takashi Shimura) who discovers he’s dying of stomach cancer. That may not sound like a particularly high-school-appropriate film, but there’s a lot to take away from it at any age. For one, you’re never too young to learn that life can end up being pretty disappointing, particularly the kind of unexamined life that Shimura lives until he comes face-to-face with the Grim Reaper. (Not literally. Then it would be a Bergman movie.) But more importantly, you’re never too young or too old to follow the path he ends up taking, working tirelessly to make an important improvement in one small part of the world by creating a playground out of a disease-infested Tokyo corner. Where others would make a movie like Ikiru impossibly cheesy, Kurosawa makes viewers feel every moment of Shimura’s difficult transformation. I once attended a screening hosted by Roger Ebert, who suggested it’s one of the few movies that could make viewers better people. I can’t disagree.
Between 10th and 11th grade, I attended Tennessee’s Governor’s School for the Humanities for a month, and took my first film class. Just about every movie we watched in that class, I’d recommend to a high-school student for one reason or another, but I’d especially recommend that teenagers watch The Graduate. First off, I think its story of a young man wanting to cling to boyhood—while his parents are trying to force him to join a corrupt “establishment”—is likely to ring truest to adolescents. Secondly, Mike Nichols’ crisp visual style and easy-to-spot recurring motifs make The Graduate a perfect movie to introduce the idea that the pictures in cinema are just as important as the acting and the dialogue. To be honest, I watched The Graduate so much in high school that I almost can’t stand it anymore, but it’s a great intro to movies-as-art for any kid.
Due to a series of unfortunate misunderstandings, lawsuits, and a wholly unnecessary restraining order filed by an entire age group, I am no longer allowed within 500 feet of anyone between the ages of 13 and 19. If I could share just one book, TV show, or DVD series with them, however, I would either recommend Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death, a dour, severe but utterly essential anti-television manifesto that permanently and positively changed both the way I see the world, and the way I consume media. Postman’s polemic almost single-handedly cured me of my television addiction, and made me devote myself instead to the world o’ literature. Alternately, I would have every high-schooler watch Sullivan’s Travels, the wisest, funniest movie ever made about Hollywood, movies, and the tricky relationship between art, commerce, and entertainment.