Thursday, February 25, 2016

'America's Stacked Deck' and Gatsby's enduring relevance

So, we are delighted that our latest two volumes are in print, Using Informational Text to Teach a Raisin in the Sun and Connecting Across Disciplines: Collaborating with Informational Text. If you use these or our earlier Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird (2014) and have feedback, please send us a line.

Meanwhile, we are gearing up for our next volume, Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby. Gatsby remains one of those seminal texts of American education, still read, like Mockingbird, by most high school students in the United States.

Do your students love this book? Does Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel still resonate in 2016?

If your answer to the former question is no and you are wavering in your answer to the latter question, think about those informational text connections that can draw out the relevance of this very historically-specific novel set during the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition and layered with now-obscure references to the Black Sox Scandal and bootlegging.

For example, Nicholas Kristof just published an opinion piece in The New York Times called “America’s Stacked Deck,” focused on the ways in which the current political campaigns reflect frustration with what Bernie Sanders calls the “rigged economy.” Kristof’s piece is a great way to make Gatsby relevant for students today.

1.     Kristof talks about the “structural unfairness in America … A dumb rich kid is now more likely to graduate from college than a smart poor kid.”

First of all, what American high school kid doesn’t need to be thinking about this kind of inequity? And how are we going to begin solving this issue if we don’t enlist the great minds of our young people in thinking about it early and often?

Plus, Gatsby is all about this issue of educational inequity. Who, within the novel, gets to go to Yale? Why do you think they get to go there? Does the phrase “dumb rich kid” resonate about any character? (Hint: one who went to Yale!) And why do you think Gatsby spent only five months at Oxford, despite the opportunity for education in Europe offered by the Armistice? Could his experience reflect on the struggles of many under-represented students today at elite institutions? (Have a student interested in this question? Point him/her to Jeff Hobbs’s The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace!) How does educational privilege underwrite the trajectory of the different characters in Gatsby?

2.    Kristof also talks about how “when societies face economic pain, they sometimes turn to … scapegoats.”

Kristof is talking about refugees. But who are the scapegoats in Gatsby? How are different outsiders within the novel sacrificed to shore up the economic and social status quo? How does Tom Buchanan’s power depend on the takedown of Gatsby? Who else in the novel is forfeited to the needs of the elite? Why, given what he’s witnessed, do you think the young protagonist Nick Carraway is “haunted” by the East and chooses “to come back home”? What do you think this choice reflects about Fitzgerald’s view of the American privileged class?

3.     Kristof cites some experiments in social psychology: one player in a Monopoly game begins with more money than others; that wealthy player not only generally wins but he/she “lords it over others and even grabs more pretzels from the communal bowl.”

This experiment encapsulates a beautiful explanation of the problem of entitlement, a critical concept for adolescents of every social background to grapple with. Who, within Gatsby, grabs more pretzels? How does this Monopoly experiment explain that entitled behavior? In what ways have these different characters been granted a leg up in comparison with others? And crucially, who, in the novel, is punished for taking more pretzels and who is allowed to grab away without any punishment?

A text like Gatsby should be read by most high school students, but if we don’t draw out the issues of entitlement, inequality, and scapegoating central to the text, we’ll have missed our moment to talk with the next generation about the central issues of our time.

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