Students Respond: “Should Lolita Be Banned from High School AP Classes?”

beware of the book[Since my students just finished reading Nabokov’s Lolita, I thought I’d give their responses to the notion that it shouldn’t be taught in upper secondary. This is the third in the Why We Should Teach Lolita in High School series. See Number One here, Number Two here, with many interesting comments. If you want to comment, please read those posts – especially the comments – first. The 21st century, social media/web 2.0 context is important here.] Just one for the Long Tail: I posted the question below in a forum to my AP Literature students – all 17-18-year-olds, all, except one, ethnic Korean but Westernized anglophones:

I blogged about teaching this novel, and my readers were split on whether AP Lit students should be allowed to read it. What do you think? Should it be banned from high school “college level” literature classes? Why or why not?

Below is every response in the forum, in the order they were posted. I didn’t cherry-pick, and I only removed names. All said AP Lit students should be allowed to read it; two suggested making an alternate available for those uncomfortable with the premise; one expressed discomfort (not as bad a thing in a classroom as it could be elsewhere). Several addressed the benefit of exposure to this before they hit it in solitude in college. And many were plain puzzled that people think the book is any worse than nighttime television or movies. (A few made me scratch my head. Follow-up discussion time approaches.)

It just seemed right to put their voices here. Here they are:

Student Responses to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita:

3.1. I don’t think it should be banned. There is nothing to ban about really. I don’t understand why we have to protected from great literary works just because it has inappropriate concepts like sex. I think AP Lit students should be definitely allowed to read it though I’m not so sure about just the general seniors or other grades that aren’t mature to handle it. It really depends on the maturity level and how the students can handle that inside a classroom. Besides, for AP classes, which are supposed to be “college prerequisite” classes, should be handling students that are ready to take the advanced material for college and should level up to the college level. Out of the shell, I say. :)

More under the fold . . .

3.2. Practically speaking, we already know this kind of things. Even though we don’t, I think it’s the time to learn to face the reality, to go out of the school’s wall. I can’t even really think of any reason why it should be banned from a reading list, except for the fact that there are many French phrases that are unusually difficult to high school students.

3.3. Frankly, I don’t think it matters whether it should be banned from high school AP classes because it’s not like it has any bold offensive or perverted language. There are parts in which the descriptions and word choices are very descriptive and erotic, but, like [student] mentioned, we’re all at an age where we are not oblivious of these informations. This might sound weird, but in a way, instead of watching porn and fulfilling their sexual desires, it would be more efficient and educational to satisfy their needs while enriching their literary minds.

3.4. I don’t think it should be banned, of course. Honestly before we read this, I thought it would be more provocative than it is because I heard it was a banned novel in many places in the U.S. But it’s not that provocative afterall. More importantly, this is a literary masterpiece. The art far outweighs the maybe provocative aspects of the book. Come on, are we going to ban the painting by Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, just because it is “provocative?”

3.5. I think Lolita should be taught in a college level English class in high school. If were to teach this to students of my own, (if I had any) I wouldn’t know how to approach a book like how we walked through it. Since college level English shouldn’t screen any sort of writing despite its’ content.

3.6. [student] and [student] ‘s take on this question is similar to mine. We’re old enough to read this. I mean, we watch soft porn in movies that we watch every weekend, we are exposed to other obscenities in the television every night, so why shelter us from what we already know? There’s no sense in that. It’s better to just accept people’s sexual preferences and instead of shunning them, we should try to understand the psychology of it. In doing so, we will better understand the way our society functions and learn how to handle these kinds of situations should it happen to us. People are still people, diseased with a love for younger people or not. Humbert is a nice gentleman to me. He is not a beast. I would be friends with Humbert. I think that he’s intellectual, humorous, and a genuinely great guy. It’s like AIDS. Just because one has it doesn’t mean that he should be banned from eating at a restaurant. Students should be given the opportunity to widen their take on the world and learn how to become more accepting of good people who have little quirks. And it challenges age old beliefs of what it means to be a ‘child’ so, I believe that students should be taught Lolita. They could read it in their sophomore year even.

3.7. As a high school student who read Lolita, I do not understand why this novel should be banned in high school. Although I might understand that some high school students who are immature and cannot simply feel the weight that the book contains are simply unfit to read this novel, in a high school “college level” literature class, I believe that the students have the capability and maturity to handle this novel. To ban such a novel like Lolita would be limiting the student’s view on world of literature. And we wouldn’t want that to happen. Do we?

3.8. It shouldn’t be banned. It is not like it’s encouraging male adults to have sexual relationships with underage girls. And even if that’s what some might think the whole story is about, then that’s that. Not every books can satisfy everyone’s tastes. And the language is just simpley too beautiful and sensitive to be banned…

3.9. I’m split between banning the book and allowing the book in high school. I say ban the book in high schools (especially the U.S., no offense), because students are not up to the level of understanding the literary and meaning of the book. Also, high schools students themselves are still developing their sense of morality, so by letting them read Lolita, they might interpret things differently. But, I also say allow the book–why not challenge students? After all, high school is a safe ground to practice real life situations, college works, etc.

3.10. At first, I thought Lolita should be banned. At first, I thought it was too provocative. But now, I think the book should be opened to seniors of high school. The novel is more than merely about sex. It deals with the psychological complexities of a pedophile, delving into many psychological aspects that are debatable. The novel provides many topics that would be interesting to have a discussion about. Also, sex is prevalent throughout many literary works (although it is less evident in most books). The book may be shocking to students who first read it but I think once they will overcome the shock as they think more in depth about the novel.

3.11. I don’t understand why it’s banned from college level classes. It is a bit provocative, but it’s not like we are never going to learn about sex. I think there still exists a quite strong feeling against the mention of sex. It’s more weird that people consider it as something weird, since it’s just our way of reproducing, the main reason of life from biological view.

3.12. I’m sort of split on the issue myself. I don’t think it should be banned from high school just because it’s a high school, but I also don’t think students should be forced to read it. If the students are mature enough and decide for themselves that they can handle it, it would be a wonderful experience for them. I think it’s definitely a good idea for an AP Lit teacher to introduce the book to the students, but perhaps it would be even better if another book was left as a back-up option if the student really doesn’t feel like he/she is ready for it.

3.13. Nabokov’s novel Lolita seems to be a should-be-banned topic on the surface, as it is a love story between a forty year old man and a twelve year old girl. But if we take a deeper look, it is not a work that we really should freak out about. Comforting news for the people who think it is not appropriate for students to read is that the novel isn’t really provocative. Rather it opens a new perspective on a topic that people simply label and do not attempt to take a second look. This novel teaches the reader to step back and see the whole forest rather than a tree.

3.14.

…namely that “offensive” is frequently but a synonym for “unusual”; and a great work of art is of course original…

Is it not true that colleges and universities desire student with experience, and open-mind ness for different ideas and concepts? How can they ban a concept, a view, an idea in the 21st century? This is like banning a part of history for us not to acknowledge about the world. This novel cannot be banned from “college level” literature classes. Why do we read and learn about literature? Is it not it to open our minds to new ideas and concepts that we did not think about, to widen our view, and to appreciate different cultures that are “unusual” to us? I have been living in different places, and we all have different cultures. Some cultures might think that not looking at a person’s eye, and looking down while a person is talking is more respectful than having an eye contact. In some cultures, people “PSSSS” at you when they want to call you. These are different minds, different level of viewing the world. 21st century is the ‘Globalization’, and ‘internationalization’ we have passed the time to ponder whether people should be allowed to read books about a black person, or a woman, so why not about human nature? I would understand if Lolita was read to freshmen, or maybe sophomores, who are not mature enough to handle the idea of what is really going on around the world, or maybe average high school English classes in a public school where there are tons of crazy and unpredictable parents who don’t want their children to “grow-up” and “open” their eyes yet. But to college-bound students? That must be a joke!

3.15. I don’t think it should be banned from high school at all. The level of sexuality in this book is not that extreme and even if it was I think that students can handle it whether it is AP Lit or just regular English. Also, since Lolita actually has a moral message, I would highly recommend this book for AP Lit students so they can explore and discredit all those that make Lolita sound like a child molester’s sex experiences.

3.16. I also agree with [student] in the idea that Lolita should be taught in high school. As Mr. Burell mentioned in class, I think it is better for us to be aware of these dangers that lie in the real society. I think simply hiding these factors of society is not helping the students but making them more vulnerable in the society.

3.17. High school is not a “pre-school” to college. The high school curriculum itself also teaches students about health and STDs, whats wrong with a book about “convincing love”. Korean public school students start their sex education in 3rd grade, whats wrong with reading about a somewhat sexual book. To tell you the truth I believe that schools are just somewhat binded by the fact to teach Lolita due to the fact that a middle aged teacher is teaching it to teenagers. Although I agree with the fact that it shouldn’t be taught in normal English classes, to an AP Literature class I think its really a nice choice.

3.18. I think that by the age high schoolers are legible for AP lit, they can handle Lolita. Lolita isn’t a pornographic book, but is rather a book that deals with real-life issues such as child molesters.

3.19. I see no problem in assigning Lolita because high school students should be aware of the power of an unreliable narrator, and Lolita is a great example of that. Some can argue that it is pornographic, but it is not like high schoolers don’t know how a baby is made; in fact, they can hardly suppress their hormones and curiosity.

3.20. High school “college level” means a college course, and I think that the syllabus should follow what the college students study. Lolita isn’t that bad to take, as long as the students are mature enough to not make faces or be obnoxious about the sexual content of the story. Really, I think that high school students should be exposed to these kinds of hard material before they hit college, because if we experience this our freshman year in college with nobody to help, it would be a disaster.

3.21. Those who are afraid to teach the novel are those who have doubts about the mentality of their students. At 18-19 years of age, most AP Lit students should be able to read and understand where the content truly lies. Just by the mere beauty of the wording in this book, it should be taught. It would teach a lot more to read throught this book once on how to be a good writer than to read what Barron’s has to say and write mock essays.

3.22. Hmm. I have to be honest; I was disturbed by some of the parts in the novel. Sometimes the scenes weren’t directly described but the way Humbert Humbert described them—it just gave me the chills. But we got to face it—AP Literature is a college course and is designed for college students. I guess we should have the mindset to learn to read and understand the novel in a mature way although—sometimes it was hard for me to… let’s say, focus on the artful perspective. But my final though is that, we are old enough to handle this. It is a provocative novel but has a lot of deeper meanings inside it that is worth taking a look at.

Photo: Beware of the Book by Florian.B. on Flickr

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  1. Perhaps you should be sending this to the College Board Powers That Be? :-)

    It does remind me of when I taught The Chocolate War to a group of 9th graders in the UK (at an international school). One of the final assignments was to make a persuasive presentation to a group of peers about the same issue: should this book be required reading, or should it be banned? Like your students, many of mine were puzzled that others viewed the book as so dangerous and immoral. Others suggested perhaps it should be a choice rather than required, but not one of them suggested it should be banned — not even the sweet, conservative Muslim girl who told me at the start of the unit that she was feeling uncomfortable reading some of the more graphic sections. Even she was able to recognize that there was value in reading such a text — even though it tore right through all that she felt personally and morally opposed to. If nothing else, it probably strengthened her faith rather than destroyed it.

  2. Sorry to be late on this one :(

    Just goes to show, doesn’t it, that the “danger” is not that students can handle it – both our experiences suggest they can (though the student feedback made me consider offering an alternate for those who don’t feel they can handle differing viewpoints or mature content – bye-bye Shakespeare?).

    So it seems we fear not immature students, doesn’t it? It’s the immature parents we fear. So weird.

    And whether “faith” is strengthened or weakened by encounters with the world? That’s the student’s personal road – that’s education. Both results are growth somehow.

  3. I was taught Lolita in an AP Language class back in high school and it was exceptionally well done. However, I went to a liberal selective enrollment public school that never really had to worry about parents or the board breathing down its neck.

    As someone who comes from that kind of background, I am always a little shocked when confronted with the kind of narrow-minded people who will try to keep books like this out of the curriculum despite the fact that it is, in my opinion, one of the best novels of the 20th century.

    The hypocrisy is ridiculous when teenagers, many of whom are having sex, are prevented from reading/experiencing media that is remotely related to sex in the curriculum. Additionally, parents that cry out against them are still the same ones that let their 14-year-old play hours of GTA:IV and watch highly sexualized commercials, movies, and TV shows.

    These kind of parents lack trust in their children and in their children’s teachers. It’s a strange situation.

    • Vel,

      Well-said.

      And it is strange.

      But my, wasn’t that a wonderful read?

      Have you checked out Nabokov’s Pnin? A little novella about a weird little emigre Russian professor of Russian language adrift in America. Laugh-out-loud funny, heartwarming, quirky goodness.

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