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:
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.