Burning Books

Thanks to Ken for forwarding me a link to this story in the Wall Street Journal lamenting (weakly) a growing movement to ban classic literature from teaching curriculum for being out of touch with modern concepts of political correctness. (Note, the WSJ has a pretty strict firewall so you may not be able to access the article from the link above)

Some who are willing to continue teaching classical literature indicate they will only do so in the service of modern definitions and conceptions of anti-misogyny, anti-racism, anti-sexism, etc. Meaning the works will be studied out of their appropriate context and forced to serve modern ideas of what literature should or shouldn’t affirm or deny.

Disturbing, but hardly surprising.

What is more surprising and more disturbing is the apparent bubble some educators feel they work in, wherein their comments and decisions – even those they choose to publicize openly on social media like Twitter – are supposedly immune to any query or question. Surely if you’re so proud of your changes to school curriculum you should be willing to talk with a reputable news outlet like the Wall Street Journal rather than retreating behind victim language such as invasive!

It’s hardly invasive, it’s important. What educators decide to teach – and not teach – as well as how they teach it matters a great deal beyond the private kingdoms of their classrooms or school buildings or districts. The decisions they make contribute to their larger community and, in our age of mobility, to our nation as a whole and potentially the world. Of course, I trust some educators are fully aware of this and it is with such audiences in mind that they craft their curriculum and nuance their instruction so their students sow similar ideological seeds in further fields.

All of this might also reflect the growing educational emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) coursework as the necessary and ideal educational focus for children on through university age. Such an emphasis obviously devalues a grounding in history and literature and the arts, the arenas of a classical liberal arts educational tradition stretching back perhaps thousands of years. The idea is no longer to create well-rounded individuals but rather to provide useful skills for particular business or industry careers. Why focus on all that other stuff that isn’t useful when you could focus in on what really matters? And if you have to teach those other, lesser areas, at the very least they should be made the servants of contemporary ideological goals rather than windows into different times and places and ideas.

The educator in the article who is aghast that 70-year old values might be seen as somehow beneficial and valid still today demonstrates an alarming disconnect. Those 70-year old values enabled her to be in the profession she’s in. What exactly does she think the United States of 70 years ago looked like, by and large? That would be an interesting conversation to have.

And of course conversations – including or especially conversations with the past – are at the heart of education. It isn’t that assigning Uncle Tom’s Cabin as reading material means you’re justifying everything in it. Much value is gained in seeing positive changes over time. But much value is also gained in being cautious to assume that only the current moment is valid or right. The old maxim that those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it is not an old maxim for no reason. The present continually makes the mistake of presuming now is all that matters and what is now must be what is right and best, when a cursory glance at the past might indicate otherwise. Might provide a break against directions very likely to lead to disaster.

But that would be education. Learning to think critically. To analyze not just words on a page but ideas conveyed in those words, to test and weigh and determine relative value. And when you teach someone to think critically rather than limit them to what you deem as safe and appropriate, you create the dangerous possibility that it is your ideas that will be found wanting in the evaluation.

One of my most cherished aspects of my secondary educational experience came the summer before I started tenth grade. I was given one of those lists of recommended books to read. And that summer, I set out to read everything on that list. I didn’t finish it by a long shot, but I read a lot of great literature. I did so without guidance, so I undoubtedly didn’t get as much value as I could have from reading them with someone there to guide me. But then again, reading them without someone there to guide me led me to discoveries I might not otherwise have come to. I could fall in love with the stark beauty conveyed in Death Comes for the Archbishop. I could find myself entranced with the curious Babbit. I could recognize my flailing through The Inferno or The Canterbury Tales and knowing I needed far more tools than I had accumulated to make good sense of them.

Limiting reading to young adult literature denies students the opportunity to grow their vocabulary or force them to research an allusion to some historical person or figure. One might appreciate Harry Potter as literature to some extent, I suppose. But comparing it to The Lord of the Rings helps us to better see the difference between something written for young adults as opposed to something written as, well, literature. Denying students the literary achievements that enabled their own teachers and professors to get to where they are today seems patently unfair, and will only ensure that at least for the near future, we chop ourselves off at the knees, culturally. Can you imagine winning the Nobel Prize for Literature without having read anything written before 1950?!

So pay close attention to what your kids and grandkids are being taught – or not being taught. Asking for reading lists and reading recommendation lists is a very good idea. And it is not invasive for someone to be interested in what kids are learning these days. It’s part of being a community.

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