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Wednesday, March 28, 2018
Many years ago, I had to defend why I taught this novel in my World Literature class to the school board and principal at Lyons Township High School.
“It is our belief, as English teachers, that all students have the right to materials and educational experiences that promote open inquiry, critical thinking, diversity in thought and expression, and respect for others in the public school classroom. Denial or restriction of this right is an infringement of intellectual freedom”—The Joint Committee of the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English.
Rationale for teaching the novel, The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski:
Thematically, The Painted Bird is a study of human and moral dilemmas, of the individual’s need for freedom in a society that not only threatens him but will not tolerate him. It’s an examination of prejudice and of the mindless cruelty and violence that exists in a war-torn world.
By reading The Painted Bird, we come face to face with the horrors of the 20th century and throughout the history of mankind; we attempt together to understand this irrationality and to condemn it. The book makes us question our beliefs about good and evil. It makes us aware of hatred in this world and, through guided discussion in the classroom, our recourse to fight against it.
The Painted Bird offers an excellent study in character development as well: the child protagonist travels and meets various people and is confronted by their treachery and violence but escapes because of his resourcefulness and his will to survive. We find that despite the protagonist’s witnessing of the atrocities around him and his attempts to understand and rationalize these horrors, he will embrace humanity at the end of the novel by attempting to communicate to his fellow man after being mute for several years. The book ends with optimism.
The Painted Bird also offers an excellent study of symbolism: the young protagonist is “the painted bird” and is, thus, persecuted for being different. It is a study of racism and its ramifications. (He is dark haired and dark eyed and speaks the educated dialect among blond and blue-eyed peasants). The novel, with its dispassionate and objective point of view, allows the reader to examine the bitter realities of this world during WW II. The language does not titillate or incite us but rather it allows us to feel the terror of this child, all the while knowing that we, the readers, are safe from harm done to this protagonist, for it is through the child’s eyes that we are observing.
In teaching The Painted Bird, we prepare our seniors to meet the diversity of good and bad experiences in life to which they will be exposed. It is true that one can witness the horrors of war, violence, and terrorism at any age. Current evening news, newspapers, and our magazines will attest to the atrocities committed in the world. According to Kosinski, “if students are exposed to situations which depart from their ethical sense on a daily basis, it’s better that this occurs within the school’s classrooms than elsewhere.”
Essentially, schools are among the few remaining places that can help tomorrow’s adults become thinking individuals who are able to judge and survive in a world of conflicting values and moral ambiguities. Our high schools and universities offer one of the few structured forums for analyzing irrational acts of violence. They give our students the opportunity to critically evaluate the human condition under the auspices of a teacher and to engage in the interchange of dialogue among peers.
It is true that much of modern literature deals with a reality that might be offensive to some people. It is also true that much of modern literature is shocking as is life itself. In a World Literature class, it is crucial for us to read and discuss precisely this reality along with other points of view. When the book raises the issues of brutality, it does not applaud these acts of violence but rather condemns them through diction that is not suggestive but clinically objective.
The World Literature curriculum that I helped design at Lyons Township High School provides the context for understanding and for dealing with these terrors at a safe distance. It allows the student to raise the question of evil and empathize with the victim’s plight. Just as importantly, it allows the student to witness man’s inhumanity towards man not only as an organized and mindless form of terror and violence as seen in the study of the Holocaust found in the book, but one equally as mindless though spontaneous as made evident by the villagers themselves.