Why Isn’t Chekhov Taught in High School?

April 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

(It shouldn’t be, by the way.) I was talking with a friend about stuff I’d read recently or wanted to read, and Chekhov’s name came up and he said in passing, “Oh, he wasn’t in the high school curriculum.”

And it’s true, of course, but it’s a very obvious yet unspoken thing that seemingly doesn’t even need remarking. There are lots of authors we don’t teach in high school — Umberto Eco, or Proust, or Marquez, or Borges. And I don’t think you can really argue it’s because those authors are too advanced for high schoolers, because there are also lots of authors we force kids to read — like Shakespeare or Austen — that are over their heads. But so why not Chekhov in particular? Why does one author make it into the curriculum but not another?

Chekhov’s case is interesting because of all the strange particulars of his writing that are thrown into relief when you think about teaching him to 17-year-olds. First off, he doesn’t teach you about a particular time and place, so there’s no social studies mission to be fulfilled by reading him. (Have you ever had a teacher tell you A Tale of Two Cities takes us back to revolutionary Paris? I’m skeptical. There aren’t enough long days milking cows and paying taxes in that book for me to be convinced.) You could argue Chekhov gives us a portrait of landed Russia from bottom to middle classes, but there aren’t any grand historical cues in his writing to make the thing look like a history lesson.

And there’s no moral, didactic, or philosophical value in his work either. Macbeth “teaches” us about free will, and Catch 22 “teaches” us about the madness of war, but Chekhov, even when you’re stretching, doesn’t teach us anything except the dreaminess even in drab lives and the variety of stubborn minds to be found among them. Some lesson! His books can’t teach you any hard questions or answers.

Lastly, and here I’m speculating more, there is something more fundamentally and wonderfully useless about his writing, in that the mere facts of his stories don’t align toward some lesson or purpose, except to illuminate their own characters and the texture of their own worlds. This is true of all real writing, but I’m still amazed at how serenely and profoundly Chekhov resists practical use. There is nothing to extrapolate from his writing, which is a quality of any whole and serene world. Imagine trying to teach high schoolers how deep the feeling of having to go out and buy a new light bulb at 10:00 in the evening because you screwed in your new one wrong and it burnt out, and maybe that conveys some idea of what I’m talking about.

This is my way of trying yet again to illustrate the difference between “literature” the academic exercise and literature the entirely frivolous pursuit.

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