In Defense of Teaching Troubled Texts in Troubling Times

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive. ~James Baldwin

As the summer wanes, we teachers slowly turn our focus to the beginning of school. For teachers of literature, that often means a trip to the dusty bookroom to decide what texts teachers and students should read together throughout the year. This is, or should be, a complicated decision, a thoughtful calibration of text and context, of who our students are and what kind of reading would serve them best as we encourage their personal and intellectual development.  After the obligatory quick count of paperback and perma-bound copies of literary texts, we consider factors of readability, literary merit, and relevance. We re-read state standards and confer with our fellow teachers about our school’s curriculum.  This fall, however, there are even more factors to consider as we attempt to make our best pedagogical decisions about what to teach and why.

These are particularly troubling times. We find ourselves in a bitterly divided country with ideological discourse at a feverish peak.  Even the very foundations of our democracy seem threatened.  Our classrooms need to remain a space where critical thinking is taught, tolerance from different viewpoints is modelled, and the sometimes-harsh truth of our history and literary heritage are not hidden. This year it takes more courage than ever to be a teacher of literature as we anticipate the various challenges that might arise, even from those we consider to be our philosophical bedfellows.  Recent challenges to both much-loved classics and newly published works have cast a troubling shadow on the teaching of literature. Pressures from both the right and from the left have prompted the removal of books from school libraries and  bookrooms.  We teachers need to resist these pressures, regardless of the political direction from which they come.

In a recent NY Times opinion piece Pamela Paul writes:

We shouldn’t capitulate to any repressive forces, no matter where they emanate from on the political spectrum. Parents, schools and readers should demand access to all kinds of books, whether they personally approve of the content or not. For those on the illiberal left to conduct their own campaigns of censorship while bemoaning the book-burning impulses of the right is to violate the core tenets of liberalism. (July 24, 2022)

In my most recent book, Literature and the New Culture Wars: Triggers, Cancel Culture, and the Teacher’s Dilemma, (WW Norton, September, 2022) I discuss this threat to the teaching of literature from both the left and the right and call on teachers to continue to teach troubling and challenged texts, even, perhaps especially, in these troubling times.  What follows in an excerpt from the final chapter of the book.

These are indeed troubling times. As I write, the world is slowly and cautiously reawaking from a global pandemic, a shuttering and withdrawal which  has forced a re-thinking of many of our bedrock social institutions, including schooling at all levels. The basic elements of schooling, the rhythm and dynamics of the classroom, so familiar that we took them for granted, were no longer possible. Remote learning has disrupted many of our educational norms, as traditional ways of teaching and discussing texts became impossible. In many cases, this disruption prompted necessary and healthy reappraisals of what we should be teaching and how we should be teaching it. Although there were clearly some significant technological and pedagogical developments that lead to positive learning highlights, most students and teachers, from kindergarten through graduate school, had an extremely challenging eighteen months of schooling.  We were all on edge, teachers and students alike, and none of us had our best selves show up to our virtual classrooms. Perhaps that generalized edginess contributed to the bitterness of this most recent iteration of the complex and confounding culture wars in which we currently find ourselves.

In addition to the myriad of difficulties caused by the pandemic, there was another dramatic kind of social upheaval as well.  I write these words from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul, just scant miles away from the site of the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020.  I write from the epicenter of an event that taught us all the most brutal and heartbreaking of lessons, that business as usual had to be stopped–on our streets, in our neighborhoods, and, of course, in our schools. This incident spurred, on a global scale, a radical and much needed racial reawakening, one that undeniably added urgency to the increasingly strident calls for a more racially sensitive and socially just literature curriculum.

This radical racial reawaking is only part of our current political, psychological, sociological, and educational landscape. In the United States, we find ourselves in a country that is bitterly divided along political lines, in ways that seem more defined and more antagonistic than ever before.  We seem to have moved beyond the divisions of political parties into a kind of cultural tribalism that views contradictory opinions as ignorance, even heresy. Even the question of whether students should be required to wear masks in school or receive vaccinations created bitter divisions between parents of school children, administrators, even governors. In this atmosphere, having a nuanced and informed discussion about something as potentially volatile as critical race theory, for example, seems nearly impossible.

All of these factors—economic uncertainty, fear for well-being in the face of ravaging pandemic, heightened racial sensitivity, and fiercely held political positions have all contributed to the fomenting of the kind of culture wars that have led to the concerns that are addressed in this book—triggers, cancel culture, and a narrow and limiting focus on a kind of extreme version of political correctness or “wokeness.”  All of these elements are brought to bear in our classrooms and influence this new era of teaching texts in these troubling times.

I write to argue for a reasoned approach to determine what literature still deserves to be read and taught and discussed, despite some troubling characteristics. It calls for a refocusing of the intellectual and affective work that literature can do and argues that there are ways to continue to teach troubling texts without doing harm.

Of course, there have always been troubling and problematic texts, texts that have been censored or judged inappropriate for public school classrooms because they contain sensitive, even objectionable content, or offensive and anachronistic portrayals of people or whole cultures. In the past, teachers often performed their own individual calculus of whether a text should be taught.  They evaluated the “teachability” of texts based on a wide array of student characteristics, the specific properties of the text, including subject matter, use of language, underlying issues, and overall perspective and context, including the relationship of the subject matter to current social and political issues.  They made specific and contextualized decisions based on the text, the teaching context, and, most importantly, their students. In these troubling times, however, it seems that was once the province of individual pedagogical prerogative, for better or worse, is now in the court of public opinion at best and mob mentality at worst, as Ann Applebaum suggests (Applebaum, 2021.)

To be sure, there is some inarguable value to the heightened awareness and increased scrutiny to particular texts. There is certain content, characterizations and racist and misogynist tropes found within the pages of some previously lauded texts  that have rendered them intolerable, so troublesome that they should no longer be taught.  In these cases, it is not sufficient to simply ignore the controversy or to dismiss serious and sustained objections to the work or calls for the work to be removed from the curriculum. Silence is acquiescence, an implicit acceptance of problematic portrayals and attitudes. Speaking out against and working to disrupt behavior and attitudes that demean and oppress others is what all educators should be doing. Texts that reproduce harmful social attitudes need to be interrogated, disrupted, and resisted. Clearly there are some texts that simply should not be taught; their historical place on the secondary literature curriculum can no longer be justified as we weigh their assumed literary value and aesthetic significance against the harm, they might possibly do by perpetuating unacceptable social attitudes and anachronistic beliefs. These texts are simply not deserving of our students’ attention. To put it more strongly, they are too potentially harmful to be taught.

Coming to Terms with the Past

To read literature also means that we come to terms with the past, in an honest, full, and non-censored way. Much of the trouble with literary texts has arisen with older, once-classic texts that portray values and beliefs that are anachronistic and best, demeaning at worst.  The works of Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Hemingway, and others may fall into this category.  Is the solution of their problematic portrayals to not to read their works at all?

To read literature is to learn to read the world in all of its complexities.  It calls for a refocusing of the intellectual and affective work that literature can do and argues that there are ways to continue to teach troubling texts without doing harm. Let us consider the larger purposes of a literary education, what it is that we want students to learn from reading texts.  In addition to encountering the richness of well-written literature (even though we may not be able to agree on what that is) we also want students to glean a sense of history, to understand the interplay between social context and literature, to witness the evolution of social mores and ideas, to view things from multiple perspectives, to be able to inhabit the perspective of others, to develop empathy, and to acquire some aesthetic sensibilities.

James Baldwin

Perhaps, by teaching, rather than banning, troubled literature, we can help students learn to decipher the world inscribed within the texts we read together and to help them read the world around them. Students can become the “enlightened witnesses” that bell hooks calls for, noting how power and privilege are inscribed all around us, and learning to read both texts and worlds with a nuanced and critical eye. Our students can become, with our help, truly educated in the way James Baldwin envisioned, able to critique one’s own society intelligently and without fear.

Perhaps this is all about trust—trust in the reciprocal act of teaching trust in the reciprocal act of teaching and learning, trust in the ability of teachers to navigate their students through difficult waters, trust in the kinds of rich pedagogical strategies that we have collectively created.  Perhaps, most importantly, we need to trust our students, to be able to learn to read words and worlds through a critical eye, to be able to parse out the harmless for the harmful, to read the world for themselves and to develop both the critical strength and emotional resilience to notice harm and to resist it, without it being kept from them by well-meaning but over-vigilant teachers. Perhaps what these troubled times need is for us to continue to teach troubling texts, and trouble the ideologies inscribed therein, rather than cancel or banish them.  Our students deserve no less.

Originally Published in the California Educator


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