Mr. Denby captures well how teenagers today struggle to grapple with the serious thinkers of the past. Yet he fails to mention that more than 40% of teachers leave within their first five years on the job and that 15% of the teaching workforce leave their posts every year. The classrooms the author joined were led by extraordinary, committed and experienced teachers. Their students are clearly the lucky ones.
Denby doesn’t provide a convincing answer to his question about the future of advanced literacy in today’s youth culture, in part because his own enthusiasm for literature overtakes the voices of the students. In the end, it isn’t clear whether the students are getting as much out of the books as he believes they are.
Two of the most fundamental merits of literature — that it can make us feel less alone in the world and can help us to develop the empathy required for humane living — go almost unnoticed ... The questions Denby raises (and fails to raise) are, as he suggests, vital to our future, regardless of how much they have been sidelined by those devices we all carry around in our pockets.
Continuously cheated in their lives, the kids of Hillhouse are cheated anew in Lit Up. Denby’s isolated chapter offers only a glance into their ordeal, and that’s a shame both for them and the book, because the underdog’s story is almost always worthier and more compelling than the champ’s. His brief time at Hillhouse underlines the limits of literature: Those students most in need of great books are by and large too strafed by their environments to invest the necessary force of mind.