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A Literary Sentence

September 2, 2021

Future teachers in Southern’s English Department should take note of a recent story from the U.K. published in the Guardian newspaper.  

A 21-year-old man has been sentenced to read literature in place of a long prison sentence for his extreme right-wing political activity, including collecting bomb-making instructions.

Judge Timothy Spencer asked the young man, Ben John, if he had ever read Dickens, Austen, or Shakespeare. Apparently Mr. John had not because the judge sentenced him to read the works of such authors. And he would be held accountable for the reading. The judge said Mr. John would be tested over the reading every four months.

In the U.K. it is illegal to hold radical views that threaten the social order. Judge Spencer thought literature might help Mr. John become “normal.”

In the United States, judges are free under certain circumstances to engage in creative punishments, but punishment for political views, downloading extremist documents, or even possessing bomb-making instructions, is unconstitutional. In fact, in the United States it is legal to promote violence, as long as the intended violence is not imminent.

The Brits can be excused for being sensitive, as are Germans, to Nazi propaganda. It is illegal in Germany to be a Nazi. After all, these countries shed oceans of blood in a conflict over Nazism.

But the United States, though a full participant in the battle against Nazism, views freedom of thought as sacred. Americans are free to be “abnormal” in their political views and to read or view whatever material they wish, with the exception of certain forms of obscene images.   

One wonders what effect the forced reading of great literature will have on Mr. John. Great literature is powerful, but its full power comes from the reader’s own reason for reading.

The lesson for future teachers of English? Never use reading as a punishment! Most of all, teachers should increase the desire among students to appreciate what they read. This occurs when teachers are able to translate their own love of good reading into the minds of their young students.