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ISSUE 121 VOL 13 PUBLISHED 3/7/2008

Distorted dreams

By Kelin Loe
Opinion Editor


Friday, March 7, 2008

On Feb. 17, The New York Times printed an article praising student inspiration. Apparently, high school teachers have been emphasizing the journey of the American Dream through teaching "The Great Gatsby." Students "see in Gatsby' glimmers of their own evolving identities and dreams," said one teacher.

Perhaps the teacher didn't notice that a majority of the book follows Gatsby's demise? Is it really okay to manipulate literature for inspirational purposes?

This inspiration strategy is ludicrous on two accounts. Firstly, teachers are encouraging students to generate their identity based on "Gatsby" characters. The identities of Tom, Daisy, Nick, Gatsby -- and even Jordon -- are constructed as solid as the keen on a sail boat. And like a keen in shallow water, their rigid personalities are indeed what get them into trouble.

The story is a "tragic love story," according to Fitzgerald -- not a coming of age story. If students aren't identifying with a fellow developer (like Holden Caulfield or Hermione Granger), then they must be trying to develop in the design of one of "Gatsby"'s despicable characters.

Flakey and image-driven Daisy? Brutal and image-driven Tom? Passive and image-driven Nick? Dramatic and image-driven Gatsby? Should we push our youth in this direction?

Secondly, teachers are pulling inspiration surrounding the American Dream from the text. According to The Times article, these teachers "take pains to present the book with a great deal of social and historical contest, and they say it crystallizes for many students questions about both the materialism of Gatsby's dream and the possibility of attaining their own versions of the dream, especially in today's highly stratified economy."

The classes mentioned have a strong immigrant population. One of these students, who immigrated two years ago from China, set Harvard University as her green light.

Typically, the "American dream" is often characterized by the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-mentality, where everyone wants to achieve better life -- even if that means trampling on their peers. This is precisely where we meet Gatsby, after he has American-dreamed his way to the top, all in a strategy to get Daisy's attention.

The book does not follow this progression (though it does mention the seedy ladders he used for his social climb). The student that saw Harvard as her green light said, "America appears to the Dutch settlers as Daisy appears to Gatsby."

Gatsby's hopes and dreams are American ideals. His effort is the real ideal of the American dream. So, apparently, working for whatever you want is the American dream. And Gatsby gets his girl. Too bad he dies.

I consider literature to be anything exploring human experience. Every time Fitzgerald took on this project, he did so beautifully. I find it insulting that this class pushed a meaning on his work. Teachers and students alike basically proof-texted a novel to serve their meaning.

If one wants to find inspiration to work hard, they can find it anywhere. Certainly, the core material of The Great Gatsby has little to do with perseverance and much to do with the negative effects of social mobility. But I say this based on what experiences are given page space.

Take from literature the individual experience of a fellow human being. Take from literature a connection to the human race. Do not delude that experience to a universal delusion meant to inspire the masses.

By deciding what Gatsby's experience means about the American dream, one generalizes a unique experience and pollutes that experience into some universal conglomerate idea that everyone can recognize. Then, for me, the beauty -- and the point -- of literature is lost. Appreciate Gatsby's story -- don't plaster the green light at the top of your goals list.


Opinions Editor Kelin Loe '08 is from Denver, Colo. She majors in English and Asian studies with a concentration in China area studies


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