Must Reads for Young People in a Stupidly Woke World

By Pat Hickey

March 6, 2022

I taught English Literature and Composition at Catholic schools from 1975 until I retired in 2017, including Honors and Advanced Placement. Since that time my hours were filled as a substitute teacher in Northwest Indiana, and I now work as a Jobs Coach for Special Education students in a large public high school.  I take troops of students to workplace locations (Al’s Grocery, WINN Machines, LaPorte County Animal Shelter and show young men and women how to wash dishes for an elementary school) and teach them how to comport themselves in a workplace.

My charges are mostly Autistic and Downs Syndrome youngsters, and they are sensational workers. Their General Education contemporaries go to college and vocational preparatory classes. I think Gen Ed kids get the short end of stick.  The Special Education kids go right into the workplace and their talents and work ethic gives them a leg up on their classmates. The students are not paid for their labors, as the time (usually 90 minutes a couple of days a week) gets credited as part of their graduation certificate. From the Workplace Program, seventeen-, eighteen- and nineteen-year-old workers very often get recruited directly into jobs. Three of my students are now salaried employees, after school.

These young people are not dependents; they are workers.

They will not go on to Valparaiso, DePauw, Purdue or Notre Dame, nor will their parents be saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in college debt. They will not read The Canterbury Tales, Aeneid, The Virginian, Ethan Frome, Henry V, Tale of Two Cities, Jane Eyre or Invisible Man; but neither will their General Education counterparts. That is a huge problem.

The current secondary school English canon is dumbed down. It seems to me that everything of value went to hell when we politely considered the opinion of dim bulbs who interrogate with “Well, who’s to say?”  People who know something, Karen.

The Who’s to Sayers have screwed up religion, politics, and sports. Keep reading, gentle folks, because at the end of my jeremiad I post a list of essential works of literature.

What were once essential readings have disappeared from high school curricula universal. As a substitute teacher I was shocked to learn that texts once deemed essential to one’s intellectual, ethical, and civic growth are no longer taught, offered, or considered. Young people have no connection to the great conversation anymore. Thousands of years of shared thoughts have been cast aside in favor of graphic novels, critical race theory, or books related to movies.

Vanity Fair, Tom Jones, The Mysterious Stranger and Moby Dick have been erased in favor of books selected by Oprah, or room temperature I.Q.’s like former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who placed his political imprimatur on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

That tome was considered a ‘nice story’ but not remotely on a par with Jude the Obscure, much less George Eliot’s Middlemarch. After the City That Used to Work gushed over the canonization of Truman Capote’s BFF, Ms. Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird climbed to top of the academic pyramid. It’s a nice story, but it is no David Copperfield. It was considered young adult fiction. Now it is mentioned in hushed tones.

Whenever I run into classmates from the 1960s, we tend to talk about the sad world the young are forced to wade through: a swamp of tepid experiences without any sense of common struggles and shared joys. This is a mean and humorless age that celebrates the balkanization of races, religions, and classes. Literature mirrors the music of the times. Chief Keef is the Old Blue Eyes and Amanda Gorman the Robert Frost. In the 1960s our common culture shared the magic of Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Dusty Springfield along with Joe Williams, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as Shostakovich and Schubert–all through television and radio. The Sound Must Seem the Echo of Sense. That was a quote from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism, which these days gets a nod only in an Advanced Placement English class. It is a musical essay that once set the canons of taste.

Books and tunes make little sense these days and essential key codes to leading a vital life are not available to students today. Let me explain.

Herman Melville’s novella Bartleby the Scrivener is a warning about the dire consequence of copying the words of others. Most people, other than the 46th President of the United States, know that imitation is flattery, but plagiarism is soul-sucking theft. The character Bartleby refuses to write or do anything other than die. He sheds his mortal husk and finally communicates with his employer, who laments, “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”

That apostrophe (in poetry, an address to a dead or absent person) sums up our copy-cat culture that churns out formulaic novels, stories and ‘spoken word’ screeds that pass for poetry.

The classics were artifacts of truth. Practice, or genuine imitation, was the only passage to genius. Samuel Johnson, Alexander Pope and John Dryden imitated, not duplicated, Horace, Virgil, and Juvenal. Real poets like Seamus Heaney imitated the greats and wrote the greatest translation of Beowulf, which celebrates courage and commitment. Amanda Gorman is celebrated for eschewing meter and rhyme scheme in favor of odd pauses. Seamus Heaney? Not in our high schools.

The virtues teach us to be morally excellent by taking the golden mean. Courage, for example, stands squarely between two vices (deficiency/excess: cowardice/rashness) and should never seem ambiguous or ironic. Shakespeare taught Aristotle to his audiences better than the Stagirite might have done himself. Richard III is a monster and Richard II is a vacillating whiner, but Henry V is what kingship is all about. Julius Caesar offers a simple seminar on political rhetoric: Brutus – the Attic, or closed fist and Antony the African, or open palm. The Attic school of rhetoric was from Greece and was determined by logic and cold reason, while the African school came from Egypt and appealed to the heart. Attic says, “Do what I say!”  African says, “Hey guys, give me a hand!”

The Attic style works for autocrats like our shut-down elected officials. Mandates are neither suggestions nor invitations to debate. They are an exercise of power.

The African rhetorical style worked nicely with people who were shown respect and allowed to exercise their civic duties as free men and women.

Brutus speaks to logic and Antony to emotion. Know your audience. The Roman plebs are angry that their champion Julius Caesar had been butchered by the woke senators who wanted to maintain the oligarchs’ power of the Senate over the common folks of Rome. Antony, a masker and reveler, understood the common man. Brutus, an honorable man, was convinced that his class should always lord it over the unwashed mob. Brutus’s closed fist: Romans, countrymen: Be patient till the last. Hear me for my cause and be silent that you may hear. Believe me for mine honor and have respect to mine honor that you may believe. Censure me in your wisdom and awake your senses that you may the better judge.

Yeah, right.

Antony offers an open palm:  Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones; So, let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus Hath told you Caesar was ambitious: If it were so, it was a grievous fault, And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.

Well, the folks rioted and the noble Romans had to beat it out of town, and fast! Between Antony’s rash emotionalism and Brutus’s cold Attic arrogance lies Octavian, the true heir to Caesar. A common Shakespearian device in tragedy and history is to have the last speech go to the person meant to rule–the last word: According to his virtue let us use him, With all respect and rites of burial. Within my tent his bones tonight shall lie Most like a soldier, ordered honorably. So, call the field to rest, and let’s away to part the glories of this happy day.

The great ruler is fair to all. The golden mean requires it.

Do you think that our elected officials have any sense of fairness? Our young people should be introduced to eternal values and virtues. Instead, they mask up as advocates and slogan-slinging cranks.

These are empirical observations based on what I witnessed. Who’s to say?  In this case, me.

I could not be an English teacher in 2022. The Woke culture would cancel me immediately. But I was able to impart eternal truths and basic virtues via literature for four decades. Helping Special Education youngsters learn to bag groceries at Al’s in LaPorte is far more important than trying to convince young minds that Amanda Gorman is a poet. Not gonna happen.

These are a few essential readings that young people once had presented to them. N.B., I find Joseph Conrad, a Polish sailor who could write in three languages and produce the most beautiful English prose about honor, duty, dignity, and compassion to be the most important. Herman Melville and Ralph Ellison wrote the two greatest American novels: Moby Dick by the former and Invisible Man by the later. If I had one book to save from extinction to prove that humanity is the work of God, it would be John Milton’s Paradise  Lost, which seems destined to be known as a weak joke in Animal House.   The greatest comic novel is A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole’s posthumous indictment of cant, ignorance and pretense.

Ladies and gents, my promised list:

The N*****of the Narcissus –Joseph Conrad–also titled “The Children of the Sea: A Tale of the Forecastle”

The Secret Sharer – Joseph Conrad

Lord Jim – Joseph Conrad

The Man Who Would be King – Rudyard Kipling

Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

Barnaby Rudge – Charles Dickens

Jane Eyre – Emily Bronte

Paradise Lost – John Milton

The Canterbury Tales – Geoffrey Chaucer

Henry V – William Shakespeare

Sonnets – John Donne

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

Bartleby the Scrivener – Herman Melville

Red Badge of Courage – Stephan Crane

The Virginian – Owen Wister

The Big Blonde – Dorothy Parker

Poems of Emily Dickinson

Man Without a Country – Edward Everett Hale

Aeneid – Virgil

The Odyssey – Homer

The Greek Passion – Nikos Kazantzakis

The Informer – Liam O’Flaherty

Short Stories of Brett Harte

Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

U.S.A. Trilogy – John Dos Passos

The Day of the Locusts – Nathaniel West

Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

The Caine Mutiny – Herman Wouk

The Continental Op – Dashiell Hammett

The Little Sister – Raymond Chandler

The Sign of Four – Arthur Conan Doyle

Napoleon of Notting Hill – G.K. Chesterton

A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

Wise Blood – Flannery O’Connor


Born November 8, 1952 in Englewood Hospital, Chicago Illinois, Pat Hickey attended Chicago Catholic grammar and high schools, received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Loyola University in 1974, began teaching English and coaching sports at Bishop McNamara High School in Kankakee, IL in 1975, married Mary Cleary in 1983, received a Master of Arts in English Literature from Loyola in 1987, taught at La Lumiere School in Indiana from 1988-1994, took a position as Director of Development with Bishop Noll Institute in Hammond, IN and then Leo High School in Chicago in 1996.  His wife Mary died in 1998 and Hickey returned with his three children to Chicago’s south side. From 1998 until 2019, it became obvious that Illinois and Chicago turned like Stilton cheese on a humid countertop. In that time, he wrote a couple of books and many columns for Irish American News. When the kids became independent and vital adults, he moved to Michigan City, Indiana, where he job coaches Downs Syndrome and Autistic teens in LaPorte County.  He walks to the Michigan City Lighthouse every chance he gets.

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