Why do some Catholic schools require students to read lousy, vulgar books?

A reader recently sent an e-mail which opened with this question: “Has St. Ignatius High School never heard of Ignatius Press?”

The institution in question is a Jesuit preparatory school in Cleveland, Ohio. I know very little about it (I’m told that tuition is around $11,000 a year), but I see that the school’s website features the following quote:

“The purpose of our education is to give a young man the tools whereby he can answer the question What does God want from me?” — Rev. Robert J. Welsh, S.J., ’54

Very nice. But, having read the school’s required summer reading list, I wonder, “Does God really want teenagers to be reading books filled with numerous vulgarities, sexually-explicit language and references, and perspectives that are amoral and hedonistic?”

For example, the novel, The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, which is required summer reading for “English I” and “Honors English I”, contains the following passage, uttered by the book’s central character, Junior, a teenage boy growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation (warning: sexual language):

I spend hours in the bathroom with a magazine that has one thousand pictures of naked movie stars:

       Naked woman + right hand = happy happy joy joy

Yep, that’s right, I admit that I masturbate.

I’m proud of it.

I’m good at it.

I’m ambidextrous.

If there were a Professional Masturbators League, I’d get drafted number one and make millions of dollars.

And maybe you’re thinking, “Well, you really shouldn’t be talking about masturbation in public.”

Well, tough, I’m going to talk about it because EVERYBODY does it. And EVERYBODY likes it.

And if God hadn’t wanted us to masturbate, then God wouldn’t have given us thumbs.

Yeah, yeah, I get it: this is real teen talk written to engage teens who live in the real world and who want tough, straight, honest fiction that takes on controversial and difficult topics. That’s the usual line trotted out in defense of such overrated pieces of fiction. Junior also expresses his anger at God and Jesus (after the death of his grandmother) by doodling cartoons that are stupid at best and certainly offensive. There is also the dubious revelation that Indians, according to Junior, used to be supporters of gay marriage–until their open-mindedness was corrupted:

My grandmother had no use for all the gay bashing and homophobia in the world, especially among other Indians.

“Jeez,” she said. “Who cares if a man wants to marry another man? All I want to know is who’s going to pick up all the dirty socks?”

Of course, ever since the whites showed up and brought along their Christianity and their fears of eccentricity, Indians have gradually lost all of their tolerance.

If it was just one Catholic school, I might simply say, “Unfortunately, there’s usually going to be a bad apple in the barrel.” But Alexie’s novel (based in large part on his own life) appears on the reading lists of numerous Catholic schools across the country. See for yourself. Why? Is it because it won the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature? If so, then why not have the young teens read the 2004 winner, Godless, by Pete Hautman, in which the the main character says, “Why mess around with Catholicism when you can have your own customized religion? All you need is a disciple or two…and a god.'” (To be fair, Hautman’s book is not, from what I can tell, actually antagonistic to religion; it might even be quite the opposite.)

And what to make of the inclusion of The Privileges, by Jonathan Dee? I read parts of it online, along with some reviews. It appears to be both repulsive and forgettable, filled to the edges with foul language and disagreeable characters, many of them seemingly hoping to be in a Camus novel but lacking the depth or focus to make the cut. I suppose it passes for what is now considered “sophisticated”, what with the “f” bombs and narcissistic chatter. Goodness.

Looking at the summer book list for St. Ignatius High School, I noticed that none of those required for English classes was written before 1970, and all but one–The Hollow Hills, by Mary Stewart (1973)–were published in the past eighteen years. Do schools even bother with the classics anymore? Or has the push for being “relevant” gotten to the point that any book written before iPhones existed is relegated to the outer darkness?

It got me thinking of the books that I had to read for English classes when I was high school (a public school) in the mid-1980s. They included several plays by Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Hamlet), For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ivanhoe, My Name Is Asher Lev (a personal favorite), 1984, A Tale of Two Cities, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I cannot recall reading a book that had been published in the just ten or twenty years before. Which is not to say that good fiction for teens isn’t being written in the 21st century. Not at all. But I have serious doubts about The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. If I was a parent whose child was required to read that book, I would have some questions for the English teacher, beginning with this one: “Have you never heard of Ignatius Press?” And, as a follow-up: “Or of the Ignatius Critical Editions?

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About Carl E. Olson 1220 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.