What We Teach, and How: Updike, Vonnegut, and Kendrick Lamar?

“The politics of hip hop education are complex,” explains Brian Mooney in his discussion of teaching Kendrick Lamar, adding:

Students are assigned Vonnegut for summer reading, complete with multiple uses of the word “fuck” and a voyeuristic sexual scene that makes many adults uncomfortable, but we allow this, and in fact require it, because Vonnegut is white. He’s been accepted into the literary canon, and thus, his writing is considered “high art.” Hip hop is still the subject of intense, misdirected hatred and discrimination in schools. We aren’t protecting students from vulgarity when we forbid hip hop in the classroom. We are protecting ourselves from our fears about race – while simultaneously robbing our students of authentic opportunities to think critically about the media they consume. Literacy in the 21st century means bringing all different kinds of “text” into the classroom – especially hip hop.

As a sometimes Vonnegut scholar, an avid Vonnegut reader, and a teacher, I paused at Mooney’s incisive confrontation of the whitewashed canon while also smiling at the thought of Vonnegut being the exemplar since Vonnegut himself struggled with being marginalized as only a genre writer, science fiction.

Mooney is interrogating what we choose to teach and how, but he is also situating teaching within the locus of authority belonging to students. Canonized profanity juxtaposed to pop culture profanity—reminding me of wonderful and animated discussions with my Advanced Placement students about the use of “fuck” in a key chapter of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, conducted without laughter or any real controversy or complaints.

Teens and young adults have heard, used, and even done these words we have tabooed except when they fall within whitewashed contexts rendered acceptable by some authority.

Mooney’s well argued detailing of his teaching Lamar now sits in the wake of Lamar’s 2016 Grammy show performance and Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl halftime show. As well, I found Mooney’s post just after blogging myself about the female as allegory and then reading Emily Ratajkowski’s Baby Woman, in which she offered:

I think of John Updike’s short story “A & P,” in which a young girl in a resort town wears a bikini into a grocery store and is asked by the store manager to leave. She enters the store in her new sweet bathing suit, excited for a summer day, and exits with a crushed spirit and an uncomprehending feeling of guilt. I think of women in their workplaces worrying about how their sexuality might accidentally offend, excite, or create envy. I think of mothers trying to explain to their daughters that while it wasn’t their fault, they should cover up next time.

As with Mooney’s piece, Ratajkowski’s reference to Updike catapulted me back to my A.P. classrooms where we annually dissected “A&P.”

“In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits,” the story begins—and it was here that what we teach and how becomes much more disturbing in the context of Mooney and Ratajkowski.

Updike’s story is canonized in literature anthologies, particularly the ones designed for A.P. courses and first-year or introductory college courses. In those anthologies, typically, stories are identified by how they lend themselves to teaching some aspects of literature: Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” for irony, for example, and then Updike’s “A&P” for mythological allusion.

With that first sentence, students were duly told that Updike has written a precise modernist work ripe for a New Critical approach to uncovering the sustained allusion to the three graces (or charities) in the form of teenagers in bathing suits.

And thus the story is reduced to a machine and our analysis, a mechanical drawing showing how all the parts work together: the three girls inspire a teenaged boy to quit his checkout job, leaving him in the parking lot facing “some young married screaming with her children.”

“A&P” as a story of maturation, a universal tale in all its middle-class whiteness left mostly unspoken, unacknowledged.

What was disturbingly absent in all those many years of dissecting “A&P” like surgeons-in-training, however, was that simple but biting insight shared by Ratajkowski above—how the story included young females with whom she could identify because of her own experiences under the male gaze: “She must have felt in the corner of her eye me and over my shoulder Stokesie in the second slot watching, but she didn’t tip,” the story’s narrator, Sammy, recognizes.

In her personal response to “A&P,” Ratajkowski concludes:

I refuse to live in this world of shame and silent apologies. Life cannot be dictated by the perceptions of others, and I wish the world had made it clear to me that people’s reactions to my sexuality were not my problems, they were theirs.

And so, like Updike’s Sammy (who while quitting argues, “‘You didn’t have to embarrass them'”), I stand staring at my own harsh realities—although not yet another female allegory (“some young married”)—in the form of Moon and Ratajkowski who pose powerful questions about what we teach, and how.

“Educators can learn a lot from [Lamar’s] album,” Mooney ends, “and its relationship to the young people in our classrooms.”

And if we reconsider what we teach, and how, we educators have a lot to learn from those young people if they are given the time and space to teach us about that which matters in their own lives.

One comment

  1. Mary Langer Thompson

    I would never assign Vonnegut for summer reading and many others. If students find him, that’s another story, but that’s why the world needs English teachers, to guide students through these pieces of literature. Just yesterday, I talked to an English teacher who is teaching Huck Finn. She took her Black students aside and asked them if the “N” word was going to bother them and because they were reading it aloud, if it bothered them if she, a white woman read it. They said, “no.” She believed the novel had to be read in class and put into context, and I think showed great respect for her students and the text. I don’t think that Twain or Vonnegut have been accepted into the canon because they are white, but because of the human truths they portray in their works that it sometimes takes a teacher to help students see.

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