My children were assigned This I Believe: Life Lessons for their middle school summer reading. The blurb on the dust jacket touts This I Believe as “an inspiring collection of personal essays” that explore the “core beliefs and guiding principles” by which Americans live today, chock-full of “profound insights.” Being your basic over-involved, hovering parent — as well as a former English major — I decided to give the book a read to see what all the fuss was about.
Now, I realize that many, many people enjoy and value This I Believe — at least that’s what I’m led to believe from the Amazon reviews. I, however, am not one of those people. At the risk of sounding snide, I think the people who like This I Believe must be the same people who strive to — as Oprah tells them — Listen to Their Spirit, or post daily affirmations from the universe on their Facebook walls. They are the people who prefer their Messages with a capital M, delivered plainly and directly as “Life Lessons”. They like meaning that is easily understood and digested, as opposed to ambiguities and contradictions that need to be teased out from language.
Above all, they like to read about things that are “nice”: non-controversial, non-objectionable ideas that all of us can agree upon. All of the “beliefs” expressed in This I Believe are just that — nice. A random sampling of the writers believe
— in being gracious to others
— in the power of forgiveness
— in expressing thanks
These are worthy things to uphold, to be sure. But the underlying essays are quite short, mostly consisting of a breezy personal anecdote told for the sole purpose of illustrating compassion, or generosity, or what-have-you. The writing itself is — at least to me — utilitarian and non-literary, like a USA Today article in terms of vocabulary and complexity. And not one essay raises any challenging or interesting questions about human nature and the current state of the world. Not one essay expresses, say, a belief in the human capacity for evil. I know what you’re thinking — that’s too heavy for middle school, right? Maybe. Then again, kids read Diary of Anne Frank and The Giver in middle school, which certainly delve into the darker questions.
But you’re missing the point of This I Believe! you might argue. The essays are supposed to be optimistic and uplifting! This is absolutely true; in fact, the tips in the back of the book on writing a “This I Believe” essay instruct would-be writers to “be positive — say what you do believe, not what you don’t believe. Avoid statements of religious dogma, preaching, or editorializing.”
Fair enough — but the result is pablum, one superficial expression of Hallmark-card sentiment after another. Even the essays that most overtly express a belief in “progressive” ideals (and by my reckoning, I could find no essays overtly expressing conservative views) do so in a reductive and child-like manner, supported not by facts but solely by the writer’s subjective “experience”. For instance, one writer’s stint as a former US Army Nurse during the Vietnam War led her to summarily conclude: “War is patriotism on opposing sides.” (Hmm – would be interesting to discuss that one in the context of Anne Frank, or the atrocities ISIS is currently committing in Iraq and Syria). Another writer’s move into a so-called “bad neighborhood” resulted in his belief that professed worries about crime, property values, and school quality are merely “code words white folks like me use to signal ‘low income people of color’ — a perfectly concealed racist weapon.” The writer doesn’t consider or address precisely why a home-buyer’s concern about resale value, or a parent’s preference to live in a district with performing schools, is “racist” — but then again, the writer doesn’t have to. In This I Believe, logic and argument are afterthoughts. Subjective experience trumps all. What a great message to send to a solipsistic generation, caught up in “selfies” and dreams of YouTube fame.
When I asked one of my children to name her favorite This I Believe essay, she answered: “Hard to say. They all kind of blend into each other.” For his part, my second child claims he figured out the gist of the book in the first three essays: “It’s all about how it’s good to be nice and nice to be good.”
I humbly suggest that This I Believe is terrible reading to assign to middle schoolers. Your average 13-year-old doesn’t want to be force-fed “Life Lessons”. Your average 13-year-old wants to read literature that hints at what he or she already is beginning to intuit: that life is challenging and unfair, that good and evil are at war within us, that we are at once the architects and prisoners of our destinies. If literature manages to express this through a good story without clobbering the kids over the head with a MESSAGE, then so much the better. They can and should be learning how to figure out messages for themselves. Moreover, there is a rich treasury of classic literature available to any middle school Language Arts department — The Hobbitt, Frankenstein, Lord of the Flies, the list goes on and on. These are works of art that have withstood the ages and are benchmarks of culture and education. So I’m more than a little baffled why so many middle schools are replacing, say, Animal Farm with banal little essays on topics like the importance of saying “hello”.
A middle-schooler reading This I Believe gets to chew on the following sentence: “When people come together, it’s a beautiful thing.” But here’s another sentence that same middle-schooler could be mulling over: “Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of a true, wise friend called Piggy.”
Which one resonates? Which one isn’t delivered with the pat conviction of a Sunday-school sermon, but with the cadence of poetry? Which one will haunt the reader and is truly transformative?
I know which sentence I’d choose. And if I were forced to assign any middle-schooler a so-called “life lesson”, I’d make them read this, which not only turns the whole idea of a “life lesson” on its head, but is humorous, sharp, and truly thought-provoking. Read it yourself and see.