David Rickert

“The Horror! The Horror!” (or Why I Will No Longer Teach Heart of Darkness)

After three years of frustration I am removing Heart of Darkness from my AP Lit curriculum. I admit defeat. I get the sense that only a few students read it and the rest used Sparknotes to get through it or just chose not to read it at all, feeling like low quiz scores was the lesser of two evils. Originally I picked the book because it was challenging and the AP students need that kind of rigor. However, there seems to be little point in giving students a challenging text when only a few of them read it all the way through (and that may be a conservative estimate.)

This has happened before. I loved Invisible Man and couldn’t wait for the opportunity to teach it. However, the kids just didn’t get it.  Some of my students actually held a bonfire at the end of the year to burn all of their school stuff and sent me a picture of Invisible Man in flames. I hate to say it, but as much as I loved that book in college, I probably will never read it again with any sort of enthusiasm because my experience teaching it left such a bad taste in my mouth.

As a teacher it’s hard not to take such things personally. However, I have to keep reminding myself that just because they don’t like a book, it’s not a personal vendetta. This isn’t a “screw you” move. I have to keep in mind that they found it too difficult or too boring and it had nothing to do with me or my instruction.

It’s hard not to get caught up in “shoulds” in this situation. Heart of Darkness is a book that AP kids SHOULD be able to read. In fact, they SHOULD be able to read everything I put in front of them. They SHOULD want to challenge themselves. They SHOULD recognize that by reading a novel that pushes them, they will become better readers. They SHOULD expect that books that aren’t The Hunger Games and Harry Potter have something for them and that the best books make you work a little bit harder than others.

They SHOULD, but the fact is they don’t. And one of the things that I learned as a teacher is not to “should” on yourself. It’s best to just accept what is and move on.

The reality is that this book is not doing for me what it needs to do in the curriculum. Assigning a book that most students don’t read is no better than not reading a book at all. The fact is the students like most of the books that I have assigned. However, there clearly isn’t enough in Heart of Darkness to sustain their interest, and I’m doing them a disservice if I continue to teach it if most don’t benefit. There are plenty of books out there to teach.

Defeat is hard, and I am still sad that Heart of Darkness didn’t work for them. I’m also still a little angry that AP kids, of all people, didn’t just grind it out. But I’ve made my peace with it. So be it. 

Before we read Heart of Darkness I tell the students that it is a journey story, and that any story about a journey is not about getting from Point A to Point B but rather about the changes that the traveler undergoes. It’s a good metaphor for what’s going on here. As much as I would like kids to appreciate this book, I now realize that I am no longer willing to deal with the disappointment when they don’t. So I will no longer embark on this journey and will pick a new path.

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2 comments on ““The Horror! The Horror!” (or Why I Will No Longer Teach Heart of Darkness)

  1. Meg
    April 2, 2013

    I’m teaching it this year to my kids, most of whom are West Africans and English is a foreign language. We are trudging through it together as a class. I hate the book, I find it racist, and long-winded and vague. We talk about what it means that this book, that so blatantly dehumanizes Africans continues to be taught as a part of great English literature. We compare it to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and even though the kids need to be walked through it, they develop their vocabulary, they develop an appreciation for the style in parts, and they learn to think not only about what an author is saying, but the different interpretations of a book, and WHY, WHY this book is deemed a great piece of literature and still taught in schools around the world. Kids don’t have to like a book for it to lead to greater discussion about literature. Neither does the teacher. We are reading aloud in class, and I assign criticisms, vocabulary sentences, and historical information about the book for homework. Perhaps take the novella from a different angle and see what your students make of it.

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  2. Danté
    December 19, 2014

    Meg, I’m not sure if you will read this, and I completely understand and accept it if you disagree. However, especially given your biased (and understandably so, as is my own) perspective, I choose to share mine with you. Heart of Darkness is much more an objective political commentary from the perspective (I’d call it satire, but I feel that such a term is much more appropriate for humorous work) of a man’s (Marlow and Conrad) experiences working in the Congo than it is a sharing of racist views. Conrad himself was also a strong anti-imperialist, and he called the Belgian exploitation of Africa ‘the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.’ [“Geography and Some Explorers”, Last Essays, 1926].
    As for it being long-winded and vague, if I may make my voicing more casual, I totally get that. Conrad is a beautiful describer, but the sheer amount of description he uses is not for everyone, and really does not have to be. Every thing you are doing with your class, however, I think is quite good, and although I am reading it for my Lit 12 AP I have to do it separately from the class work. If you dislike this book, I assume you are either able to separate the quality of something from how much you like it, or you’re interpretation of why it’s deemed a great piece of literature is very different than mine.
    To Mr. Rickert, I’m so sorry that this was your experience with Heart, as I love it to death and several others in my class do. Some have sparknotesed it, despite our protests to them that this is THE ONE BOOK in modern English literature that absolutely cannot be sparknotesed, but consequence is consequence. We have several other good choices, we are well-rounded literary students, and we have a good teacher. I clicked on this in confusion and curiosity, but I believe you are a good teacher who has just had enough, and I totally understand that as well. Hopefully you can come back to it in the future if you get a class one year who you truly believe is ready for it.
    Best of luck, and thanks for helping keep good English alive and well!

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This entry was posted on March 15, 2013 by in education and tagged , , .
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