Wokeness Threatens Students Opportunity to Study the Classics

We’ve discussed this topic here before, but a recent piece from Rod Dreher at The American Conservative has reawakened my interest in the subject.  The subject, of course, is the previously slow but accelerating tendency of woke scolds to attempt and purge from the public square anything that doesn’t conform to their perfect, utopian standard of cultural and racial diversity.

Mr. Dreher posted a picture of a now deleted tweet in which a literature teacher from a northeastern school district gleefully announced the district’s trashing of books which do not conform to the aforementioned standards:

book banning bins

There have always been the arguments raised about whether kids should be forced to read classic literature because it is “too hard” for them, they might find it boring, or simply because the kids don’t like to read old books for any number of reasons. Sometimes the teachers themselves might not enjoy sifting through the language and themes with students. Nonetheless, it was generally accepted that the benefits of reading and discussing classic literature added a level of intellectual and literary value that cancelled out most of those complaints.

Lately however, as our culture has become increasingly ideologically divided and more cultural battle lines are being drawn, educational consensus has given way to the kinds of rhetoric displayed above. The Western canon, at least the portion which is authored by European descended men, features traditional Western norms or considers religious mores in any way virtuous, are under severe attack. They are “unengaging, irrelevant, and lacking in cultural diversity” based on the above commentary.

Somehow, as this piece from The Federalist points out, there seems to be little hand wringing or hesitation about subjecting students to questionable content from books which are assumed to be more “engaging, relevant and culturally diverse” so long as they are written by approved, qualified authors.

After becoming familiar with the high school reading list that not only included “Beloved” and “Obasan” (a book about Japanese internment that contains descriptions of a little girl being repeatedly molested by a much older neighbor), but “The Bluest Eye,” another Morrison book, Murphy decided to make her concerns known to the school’s administration.

During a meeting with the principal and assistant principal, teachers, librarians, and the English Department chair, an English teacher told Murphy it was important to assign literary material written by best-selling, award-winning authors and if teachers publicly identified books containing sexually explicit material, parents won’t want their kids to read them.

“The principal said he didn’t feel he needed to make a change, and that I needed to go to the county level where my only recourse was to challenge a single book,” Murphy said. Murphy chose to challenge “Beloved,” losing each of three appeals.

Dissatisfied with the outcome, Murphy took her case to the Virginia Board of Education. When she attempted to email direct quotes from “Beloved” to members, the agency firewall prevented her communications from being delivered.

When parents are informed of these kinds of offensive material being assigned reading, they are often made to feel out of touch because the books in questions have won awards or were written by acclaimed authors:

Kim Heinecke, also a mother of four with two teenaged sons, is an Edmond, Oklahoma, mother who can relate to Murphy’s battle. After her son, a public school sophomore, was assigned the books “The Kite Runner” and “The Glass Castle” as required reading for English II and Pre-AP English II, Heinecke went to the principal and asked for a conference.

“He talked to the teachers [prior to the meeting] and the English teacher’s response to him was that it was an award-winning book and kids hear this kind of thing all the time. I felt as though I didn’t have a right to tell them I didn’t want my kid to read it. They made me feel stupid,” Heinecke said.

Some might argue that these books, which many parents are offended by, offer opportunities to discuss the themes and subject matter in ways that allow parents to reinforce their particular family’s moral or religious values. I believe this line of argument stretches the boundaries of credibility, but let’s acquiesce to it for a moment.

Using the above argument as a foundation, objections to classic literature and the lenses through which they’re written are baffling. Banning or otherwise removing those books from rotation robs students of valuable lessons about the lives and contributions of those who have gone before us. It robs teachers of the opportunity to discuss the history and cultural norms of the writers who authored them, and so juxtapose those norms and values (good and bad) against the norms and values of today.

Our children have all studied classic literature, and our younger children have only ever studied classic literature in school. Their teachers have done a masterful job of walking them through the times and places in which these authors lived and wrote. In the cases where we there was an opportunity to distinguish between what was culturally acceptable in a certain time and place between what is culturally acceptable today, they covered those subject with both the necessary seriousness and a respect for the literary work.

For example, in Rudyard Kipling’s classic Captains Courageous, there is a lot of racially offensive language, or at least language that most of us find offensive today. It wasn’t necessarily considered offensive at the time. Our child’s teacher was able to discuss those issues in class without disparaging the overwhelmingly positive message conveyed by Kipling’s work.

This is important to do because it is very easy for us, in 2019, to sit on a perch of moral superiority and judge the people of the nineteenth century for their ways of living and viewing life. Trashing classic literature in the name of diversity, cultural relevance, and political correctness is to throw out both the baby and the bath water.

I often think -at least I certainly hope- that 50 years from today someone will look back on some of the craziness of today and wonder aloud, “What WERE they thinking that they embraced such things?”

I don’t think that should mean burning every book written in the past 50 years, no matter how personally offensive I find many of them.

 

8 thoughts on “Wokeness Threatens Students Opportunity to Study the Classics

  1. Krysta says:

    I think it is possible to teach books from the past that may have ideas we don’t agree with anymore and to use them to raise discussions about where we came from and where we hope to go. I think pairing older books with newer titles and doing a comparison read of sorts could also be beneficial.

    I do find it interesting that many people think we shouldn’t teach old books because they’re “too hard” when, in my opinion, they are often difficult, not necessarily because they are old, but because they are adult titles–not children’s or YA titles. The fact that the old books were replaced with titles like Beloved and The Kite Runner suggests that teaching newer books isn’t actually going to be any easier for students because these are also adult books (with adult content, too, as some parents pointed out). I really don’t know many people who would say Toni Morrison’s books are an easy, light read! (And I think you’d often find them taught at the college level as a result.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. hearthie says:

    I’d just like to see reading at higher levels taught. You would not BELIEVE what my son (19, first year of college) has been asked to read for Eng 1. There is internal screaming going on – but that’s college, so not like I can whine about it except to you. Goosebumps. I kid you not.

    As for Beloved et al vs. Classics … Classics win, but because they’re CLASSICS – not because they’re nicer. While I think any book with rape etc should be for seniors in HS and up… I had to read Jude the Obscure my senior year in HS, and it was just as misery inducing as Beloved (which I had to read in college). The last line of JtO is, “He sure makes a pretty corpse” – said by Jude’s wife to his mistress. His kids (by the mistress) at one point decide to commit suicide for the sin of being bastards. It’s NOT a nice book. But Thomas Hardy! Yeah, whatever.

    The games being played by school districts so that parents don’t have control over their kids’ education, on the other hand, those … those are a big pile of the reasons that parents are leaving public education.

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  3. bikebubba says:

    Hmmm….it would be very interesting to see what books were in the dumpster. Interesting that graphic descriptions of child rape are still A-OK, as if #MeToo never happened. Are the woke half asleep?

    That noted, my family has picked up a LOT of great, classic books from libraries simply because people did not check them out and they were discarded. The “woke” are simply accelerating what was already happening.

    It ought to be noted as well that one of the huge casualties of the lack of classic literature reading is that those deprived of the Bard, Twain, and such are also going to have trouble not only understanding the cultural references that are derived from them, but will also have trouble understanding other documents from a few centuries ago. Like the Constitution, the Federalist Letters, the Anti-Federalist Letters, and the like. It’s the same issue that came to mind when many feminists insisted that they could not understand grammatical gender (grammatical “he” referring to both males and females) in the Bible, and thus they needed to “correct” the Word of God.

    I’ve got to wonder if the reason for removing the old books (and pronouns) is not so much that they’re not “woke” in our current sense, but rather because those “other documents”, if read, are a bulwark against their other political plans.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. smkoseki says:

    Comments:

    1. Why can’t conservatives/traditionalist just acknowledge it’s a culture war, long lost? Yes Virginia, they do hate you. Why all the incredulous protesting and fighting the poor school districts? Yes, they will indoctrinate kids to their side. But if you wish to make a real difference in education for the broader culture just have a large family and indoctrinate way. If you want to actually learn the classics is a free country: 1) Kill your TV, 2) Homeschool. No more problem. QED.

    2. I don’t get all the angst about destroying books or throwing them out. That’s a liberal trope. Classic books are free! It’s just nobody reads them. By choice (heck nobody reads much anymore, period). How many educated people have actually read and imbibed Aristotle or Aquinas? Or the bible in a critical/historical way with the Greek? Or Dante, likewise? The Imitation of Christ? Or the Iliad? These are all mandatory historical classics, period, yet what, less than 1% have read them (including those who mourn the death of classics). Free men generally much prefer garbage, just like our preferred modern music.

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  5. Elspeth says:

    I agree, Krysta, that modern books can be hard to read. Toni Morrison is an excellent case in point.

    Ultimately I think it comes down to the fact that many teachers don’t want to teach classics because fewer and fewer teachers are reading them anymore. See Hearthie’s comment about her freshman son being assigned R.L. Stine. What the…??

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  6. Elspeth says:

    @ Hearthie:

    The games being played by school districts so that parents don’t have control over their kids’ education, on the other hand, those … those are a big pile of the reasons that parents are leaving public education.

    This is the crux of the issue. There is, I believe a concerted effort to shape kids in ways that are far deeper than intellectual development or even college and career readiness.

    What I really want to know though, is what your very intellectual father thought of his grandson’s reading assignment, 🙂

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  7. Elspeth says:

    @ smkoseki:

    I agree with you that the answer really is for those of us with conservative/religious values to vote with our feet and exit the public system. That’s what we did and we haven’t looked back.

    I think a lot of people can’t conceive of what the options are if they can’t afford private school. It’s easy for us to yell, “Homeschool or die!” but not everyone has the margin or the temperament for that. Heck, I don’t even have it which is why my kids are in “school” of sorts, twice a week with solid, intellectual Christian teachers that I trust implicitly while my job is to help, reinforce, stay on pace and make sure that they are in a healthy learning environment. I knew as soon as they hit middle school that it was time for support.

    Of course, that costs us a few thousand a year, and not every family has that.

    This is why, despite my retreat from the fight, I don’t have a problem with parents attempting to make a stand against the onslaught of irreverent content and leftist dogma masquerading as literature. They might be able to help not only their kids, but the kids of parents who are mostly oblivious.

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  8. hearthie says:

    Oh, it’s my ex-English teacher mother I’m waiting for the screaming for when I tell her about Goosebumps….. :p You might be able to hear her in FL. I have to poke 19yo with a stick and get him to take a practice math test and spend the rest of the semester prepping for the class he should be in with the ex-math teacher… 😀

    I was pretty peeved when I found out that Soc 101 no longer requires you to read Weber, instead you have to read some dude I never heard of (my minor was in Soc, and I was a thesis paper away from a double major, so I do know my Soc).

    I’m pretty annoyed by the lack of homework for him, to be honest. There is a profound lack of suffering going on… well, except for the bit where he registered for the wrong classes and ended up with a very long commute! -how we learn to read the fine print-

    School flight – yes, we left in the middle of public schooling. I am not a very good teacher, so charter school with provided curriculum was a blessing. Especially when I could change that curriculum to my tastes whenever it suited me. (Note that CA requires you to homeschool under the supervision of a certified teacher, and has a few other rules that charter schools help you with). Had I to do it over again, I’d have started from scratch – public school was disadvantageous and put down a poor educational foundation that I had a hard time undoing.

    This does not make me sad, considering what CA has decided to do with their (mandatory) sex-ed curriculum. The charter school, knowing that most of their kids come from Christian homes, is treating it like radioactive waste – minimum contact – but the schools in district had to experience a protest to get the horror made somewhat sensible.

    Liked by 1 person

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