Needs More Clockwork: An Essay

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

clockwork2recent 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.

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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 moreclockwork1 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.

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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.

Comments

5 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Nathan Fuller,

    This is great! It’s well written – including some pretty nice similes – and well argued. Animal Farm was smart but dull, and Clockwork definitely strikes a great balance: entertaining and acerbic. Interestingly, someone in my high school petitioned to discuss The Stranger in class and was quickly shot down – I wonder if it’s read in other high schools.

  2. I completely agree with Nathan — this was extraordinarily well-written and compelling throughout. And although I’ve never read the novel (and only seen Kubrick’s film) this essay makes me want to add it to my list of read books.

    Great job, Caroline. Your writing is insightful and engaging.

    I only have one small dispute with the essay:

    The first sentence of the third-to-last paragraph reads: “Which books students are assigned to read isn’t nearly as important as how many books students are exposed to and engaged in.”

    I have always been a firm believer that when it comes to literature, quality is much more important than quantity.

    Reading hundreds of dumbed-down, explicitly sexual novels with cheap story lines – whose authors simply use extremely vivid imagery to tell simple tales – won’t help one improve his/her reading comprehension ability.

    There are times when reading the classics really helps a person develop an understanding of symbolism, metaphor, and other literary techniques that aren’t found in just any book published.

  3. Helen Carey,

    Caroline, hi!
    Just wanted to say hello and that I enjoyed this a lot–interesting and, like Nathan said, well-written.

    PS Nathan- We read The Stranger in my AP class. Then my teacher went to jail for having an affair with a student.

  4. Jessica Hauck,

    I’ve read this novel several times, and Kubrick’s film is one of my favorites. It wasn’t an assigned reading for me (I doubt it’s assigned anywhere, honestly), but one of my English teachers recommended it. That same teacher also gave me a copy of “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath. There are so many innovative and enriching books that students are never exposed to, simply because of their “lurid” content. In Grand Theft Auto I can shoot hookers. I can watch snuff films and child porn online if I want to. But in high school, I wasn’t allowed to read books like this for my classes. It’s despicable. Burgess’s other books are also amazing (“The Wanting Seed is less graphic and more interesting than his more famous pieces), but they’re completely underrated because he has such a horrible reputation. Our generation grew up a long time ago, and I say it’s high time for our teachers and administrators to follow suit.

    PS – I read “The Stranger” in my AP English class and loved it. I found out recently though that it isn’t being offered anymore due several complaints by parents

  5. Dan Enden,

    Was lucky enough to get my hands on a copy of Clockwork in 8th grade; loved it (and Kubrick’s flick) ever since.

    On this topic, you should scope out the book “You Will Die: The Burden of Modern Taboos” by Robert R. Arthur; excellent.

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