Based on a totally unscientific survey – meaning I asked a class of 25 for a show of hands – I learned that The Grapes of Wrath is not assigned as broadly as I assumed. I didn't think it was possible to go to high school in the United States without reading it (or at least being assigned to read it). It turns out that in my non-random sample of 25, no more than three or four had read it previously. Don't worry, I'm fixing that. For this small group, anyway.
What exactly were they assigned, I asked? According to the Center for Learning and Teaching Literature, the ten most assigned books do not include The Grapes. The list also omits some of the other more socially- or politically-oriented classics like 1984, Brave New World, The Jungle, and a bunch of other things that I assumed were read commonly. What is well represented is relatively inoffensive fare (Romeo & Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird, Hamlet, etc.) These are of course excellent choices. They are somewhat light on heavier social and political themes, though.
States and school districts vary widely in how they choose required readings. And for all I know, The Grapes of Wrath could be somewhere in the top 20-30 assigned books and therefore still pretty popular. Groups like school boards tend toward the least offensive choices when making decisions; it's a product of committee thinking. Perhaps the novel just isn't as worthy and popular as I thought. I could just be biased or delusional. Is is difficult, however, to imagine that the exclusion of a book about how our economy systematically generates and thrives on a new form of serfdom is a complete coincidence.
I suppose it wouldn't do to have the kids learn that if you can create a large enough class of desperately poor people and 10,000 show up for 100 job openings, you can get people to work for peanuts. Or that it's necessary to denigrate the underclass by calling them dirty, shiftless, thieving degenerates in order to maintain social power. Or that any man who wants thirty cents when they're paying twenty-five is a goddamn Red. No, that won't do at all.
Admittedly I don't know anything about the process of choosing curricular materials at the K-12 level. Our homework – and this includes me – is to research and determine how reading lists are chosen in our local school district. It's something well worth weighing in on if possible.