With novels like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 spearheading themes of social justice in many high school classrooms, it’s a wonder one of the more
recent dystopian novels, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, has been left out of the academic line-up — like a large, smelly kid left out of a pick-up kickball game. But with a closer look, its vulgar content, rather than its lack of endurance, is likely among the reasons for its omission from most high school curricula. With scenes of brutal and arguably trivialized rape, “ultra-violence,” and a glossary knee-deep in new swear words, it’s no wonder teachers avoid it like the plague. However, despite the academic awkwardness of A Clockwork Orange, it – like a struggling kickball player or a misunderstood book – can become a most effective secret weapon if taught with the right amount of guidance.
While some parents would probably object to their children reading about such lewd topics as the ones covered in Burgess’ novel, many of those same parents aren’t aware of the cesspool of information available on the Internet, and the ones that are aware probably have children who have been able to outsmart web browser security settings since before they could chew their own food. Regardless of what is taught in public schools, sheltering teens in this era will prove to be impossible thanks to the extreme accessibility of information.
Parents, teachers, and administrators shouldn’t fear students being exposed to sex and violence in class; but maybe they should fear for the ones who aren’t. The censoring of various types of books indubitably creates a void in peoples’ cognizance, but such a void doesn’t maintain purity of mind–it simply leaves it open to be filled with whatever information or opinions happen to come its way next. Just as a pothole is filled with runoff, decaying leaves, students minds will be cluttered by unreliable sources, making for a rough, unreliable understanding of the world.
Rather than trying to find new ways to “protect” our impressionable adolescents, teachers and parents alike should meet taboo topics head-on. By incorporating sensitive information – to which kids in this era are exposed – into the curricula, teachers acknowledge students’ maturity and consequently, encourage it. Because students have grown up closely watching teachers, they have a sixth sense for detection of their teachers’ expectations. And, never settling for more work than is necessary, students always test their boundaries. When students know that teachers have set low expectations, they gladly fulfill those expectations; when teachers treat them as and expect them to act like adults, students think and act accordingly. By having confidence in students’ level of maturity, and entrusting them with risqué texts such as A Clockwork Orange, teachers concomitantly create students’ capacity to act and think maturely. This disarms any damaging influence that some people would argue graphic books have on adolescents.
Literature, despite its archaic feel for some, is an integral part of the construction of individuals’ perception of the world. The literature to which people are exposed, along with unmeasurable other experiences and sources, condition them to behave in certain ways and believe certain ideas. Clearly, this sort of conditioning is neither as agonizing nor as domineering as that which is undergone by Clockwork‘s main character, Alex–but the influence of literature nonetheless should not be taken lightly. By the same token, it shouldn’t be taken so seriously as to necessitate book-banning and state-mandated texts.
Which books students are assigned to read isn’t nearly as important as how many books students are exposed to and engaged in. A literary masterpiece predominantly used as a paperweight doesn’t teach students anything. Rather than prioritizing the moral and historical content of a language arts curriculum, the objective should be to introduce students to texts in which they are interested. With an extremely provocative plot, leaving readers nearly no choice but to befriend and sympathize with a criminal, A Clockwork Orange is entertaining enough to pique any students’ interest. And with a moral that cuts to the bone of any good dystopian novel, it is a teacher’s dream.
Burgess’s book creates a sort of dreamy harmony between what a student and a teacher want out of a book, making it an ideal choice for the classroom. By balancing both the academic and the interesting without seeming juvenile or didactic, not only do controversial books effectively introduce students to themes relevant to current and universal ideologies, but they also effectively teach students critical thinking skills necessary for comprehension of subsequent texts.
If schools weren’t nauseated by the violence and language in the book, it would probably be ranked among the most popularly taught in high school. I hope that in time teachers will stop shying away from Burgess’s novel in favor of more politically correct, though slightly less enthralling dystopian novels like Animal Farm. Unless administrators can find ways to effectively implement the conditioning techniques illustrated in A Clockwork, teachers should seek out books that will interest their students, rather than feeling obligated to choose from outdated ‘classics’ or trite textbooks.