Posts Tagged ‘Lorena German’

The literary community has seen more than its fair share of bad takes and ugly discourse this year, and with only a handful of days remaining before the start of 2021, you might’ve thought we’d be spared another. Enter Meghan Cox Gurdon’s recent opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, Even Homer Gets Mobbed, in which she both laments and lambasts the existence of the #DisruptTexts movement. Led by Lorena German, among others, #DisruptTexts exists to challenge the continued dominance of the white, Western literary canon in schools, with a particular eye to teaching students more modern and inclusive works. To quote their website:

Disrupt Texts is a crowdsourced, grass roots effort by teachers for teachers to challenge the traditional canon in order to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum that our students deserve. It is part of our mission to aid and develop teachers committed to anti-racist/anti-bias teaching pedagogy and practices…

Each week, join us for the #DisruptTexts slow chat on Twitter as teachers from across the country and world come together to apply a critical lens on a central text. We’ll discuss how to disrupt traditional pedagogies by suggesting alternative titles and approaches through thoughtful pairings, counter-narratives, and inclusive, diverse texts sets.

https://disrupttexts.org/lets-get-to-work/

In other words, #DisruptTexts is drawing attention to something that many teachers – and, indeed, students – have struggled with for decades: the massive disparity between the lived experience of students now and the world portrayed in the books they’re given to study, which is often compounded when such works are taught uncritically. This does not mean, as Cox Gurdon and others seem to fear, that #DisruptTexts views all classic texts by white authors as valueless or bad, such that these works must be summarily rounded up and burnt; rather, it’s questioning their usefulness, both individually and en masse, for teaching teens about language and literature.

It is a fact born out by immense amounts of data that, when children do not see themselves positively reflected in stories, they suffer for it. When the historical default in film and television is for white, male-dominated casts with perhaps one token girl or non-white character thrown in, whether animated or live action, we know there has been a profound and negative impact on how everyone other than white boys is taught to see themselves: as secondary, invisible, unimportant. That being so, it should be equally obvious that teaching teens a literary canon written almost exclusively by white men will have similar consequences. Beyond the extremely salient issues of how race, gender, queerness, disability, sexuality and other such issues are portrayed within the texts themselves – beyond, even, how placing the literary canon above all else frequently turns teens away from reading, away from writing, by virtue of doing nothing to show them what books and literary styles are like now – what lesson do aspiring writers of colour take from English class, when only white-authored works are held up as worthy of study? What lesson do young queer kids take, when confronted with texts that either elide them entirely or paint them as stereotyped villains? When Jane Eyre is taught uncritically or without nuance, how does Bertha’s portrayal feel to students who are mentally ill, or women of colour, or both, especially if their teacher fails to treat the subject with nuance?

Increasingly, it feels to me, the obsession with enforcing the literary canon in schools is a last-ditch effort to enforce its relevance – relevance here being distinct from value, though canon devotees often conflate the two – in order to perpetuate the idea that only a certain kind of writing (and, said quietly, a certain kind of writer) has value. When racism, sexism and other historical biases are acknowledged, it is harder to maintain the claim that the canon is the canon for reasons of objective literary quality and ongoing relevance rather than, as is actually the case, because it represents a specific narrow tradition, with its overwhelming white-straight-maleness handwaved as an irrelevant coincidence. As Lorena German rightly points out, it matters that so much of the canon was written before diverse voices were given a platform at all – and as that platform is still less than secure, made narrow and conditional and subject to threats, it likewise matters that the obsession with teaching only the literary canon is functionally used to push back against diversity.

It is therefore with extreme bad faith and piercingly high-pitched dog-whistling that Meghan Cox Gurdon begins her piece against #DisruptTexts:

A sustained effort is under way to deny children access to literature. Under the slogan #DisruptTexts, critical-theory ideologues, schoolteachers and Twitter agitators are purging and propagandizing against classic texts—everything from Homer to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Dr. Seuss.

In dealing with this claim, it is helpful make use of DARVO. First, denial: according to Cox Gurdon, #DisruptTexts has no valid complaints and is agitating purely out of spite. Second, attack: the idea that “agitators are purging and propagandizing” is aggressively loaded language, conjuring up images of burned books and spittle-mouthed zealots yelling from pulpits, as opposed to a thoughtful, committed group of teachers engaging critically with the content of classic literature as they work to improve their classrooms. And third, reverse victim and offender: the entire point of #DisruptTexts is to increase children’s access to literature by teaching more and different texts; by contrast, it is detractors like Cox Gurdon who want #DiverseTexts shut down, which would functionally deny students a wider range of learning opportunities.

She continues:

Their ethos holds that children shouldn’t have to read stories written in anything other than the present-day vernacular—especially those “in which racism, sexism, ableism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hate are the norm,” as young-adult novelist Padma Venkatraman writes in School Library Journal. No author is valuable enough to spare, Ms. Venkatraman instructs: “Absolving Shakespeare of responsibility by mentioning that he lived at a time when hate-ridden sentiments prevailed, risks sending a subliminal message that academic excellence outweighs hateful rhetoric.”

Again, this is a bad faith claim and glaringly inaccurate: the ethos of #DisruptTexts has nothing to do with “present-day vernacular;” Cox Gurdon is dog-whistling again, implying that such modern books are inherently lesser. It’s also telling that, although she cites Padma Venkatraman’s piece in the School Library Journal, she doesn’t link to it – presumably because doing so would expose that she’s deliberately ignored the context of the piece, which begins:

Lately, I’ve heard from several parents, educators, and librarians who want to prevent white children from imbibing prejudice. When I suggest that one simple step we can take is to proactively encourage young people to read diverse books, there’s agreement. When I suggest another equally easy step is to stop supporting racist classics, I meet resistance.

Immense and complex problems face us as a nation today—and I’m not trying to trivialize them. Changing the stories we read (or don’t read) won’t change society overnight, but I do believe it will help curb insidious biases from perpetuating in future generations. If we’re serious about preventing children from growing into adults who indulge in exclusionary behavior or ignore supremacist institutions and traditions, we must take small steps that are within our control, while demanding larger changes.

Venkatraman was writing in June of 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, with an eye to addressing a question she’d been asked about the germination of racial and other biases in white students. She was not writing in a vacuum, as Cox Gurdon’s elision of context aims to suggest, nor is she randomly calling for the death of classics purely on abstract grounds. Rather, she is speaking specifically about racist classics and the harm they can cause when taught uncritically. That Cox Gurdon has taken this to mean all classics – and has immediately leapt to their defense regardless – rather makes Venkatraman’s point. It’s worth quoting Vekatraman’s piece at length, as she makes a clear, intelligent case for the issues posed by uncritically keeping classics in the curriculum. To give her comment about Shakespeare its full context:

Racism in classics can’t be negated merely by alerting young readers to its presence. Unless we have the time, energy, attention, expertise, and ability to foster nuanced conversations in which even the shyest readers feel empowered to engage if they choose, we may hurt, not help. Pressuring readers of color to speak up also removes free choice and can be harmful.

Even if we establish safe environments for discussion, classics privilege white readers. If we say that we love Mary of The Secret Garden, who considers Indians to be Blacks and says that Blacks “are not people—they’re servants,” we’re excusing and overlooking her openly expressed hatred. To Kill A Mockingbird exemplifies the white savior stereotype. Uncle Tom’s Cabin broke out of the horrifically narrow confines of the era when it was written—but can it be considered progressive today? Isn’t it more important to pay attention to books written by more recent Black authors, and include both titles that speak about the history of enslavement, and also, equally, books that celebrate Black joy? Consider whether, if Holden Caulfield had been a dark-skinned teen, his behavior (which includes hiring a prostitute) would have been considered threatening, inappropriate and even criminal—or if he’d have received the level of approbation and adoration from white readers that he’s enjoyed. Ask if absolving Shakespeare of responsibility by mentioning that he lived at a time when hate-ridden sentiments prevailed, risks sending a subliminal message that academic excellence outweighs hateful rhetoric.

Insisting on exposing diverse children to racist classics in which they see characters like themselves demeaned, or, at best, entirely excluded, is not just insensitive, but downright cruel. Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie endorses terrible historical injustices. It also, like most fairytales, perpetuates the myth that dark skin isn’t beautiful. Such ideas can damage the self-esteem of readers with diverse backgrounds.

Reading can be a key to success. If we want to nurture readers of color, we must get rid of racist classics in homes, bookstores, and English classrooms.

I’m not advocating we ban classics. Or erase the past. Classics are undoubtedly examples of excellent writing, or they wouldn’t have survived the test of time. I’m just suggesting we study classics in social studies classrooms, where inherent ideas of inequity are exposed and examined; where Huckleberry Finn may be viewed as an example of literature that showcases the white lens. Delay the study of classics until readers are mature enough to question, debate, and defy subtle assertions. Dissect classics in college by setting aside time to delve into both literary merits and problematic assumptions. Redefine parochial notions of what “well-read” means; after all, British children are unaware of many celebrated American authors.

When we defend classics, we’re sometimes just defending childhood memories. I wholeheartedly agree that Pippi Longstocking has many merits, but before putting her on a pedestal, re-read the series, while imagining you’re dark-skinned or reading an unabridged version aloud to children with diverse backgrounds. Mightn’t Pippi move aside to make place for other spunky characters whose fathers aren’t white kings of black cannibal tribes?

It’s precisely this sort of nuanced, knowledgable thinking that Cox Gurdon sees as “the subtle complexities of literature… reduced to the crude clanking of “intersectional” power struggles.” But then, the role of critical thinking in literary analysis is far too often something more preached than practiced in schools, especially when it comes to assessing the worth of a text at the individual level. During my own high school career, I found it ironic that, while purporting to teach us critical thinking, my teachers would punish me for disagreeing with the textual analysis laid out by the curriculum. It didn’t matter if I could cite the basis of my objections and personal interpretations using the text itself: we had to stick to what the module wanted, and any critical deviation would be viewed, I was told more than once, as “cheeky.” I’d aspired to be a writer long before my English classes forced me to read Tim Winton and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but it was their texts and teaching that so burned me out on my best and favourite subject that, by the time I reached university, I went into history instead.

Says Cox Gurdon:

Thus Seattle English teacher Evin Shinn tweeted in 2018 that he’d “rather die” than teach “The Scarlet Letter,” unless Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel is used to “fight against misogyny and slut-shaming.”

Outsiders got a glimpse of the intensity of the #DisruptTexts campaign recently when self-described “antiracist teacher” Lorena Germán complained that many classics were written more than 70 years ago: “Think of US society before then & the values that shaped this nation afterwards. THAT is what is in those books.”

Jessica Cluess, an author of young-adult fiction, shot back: “If you think Hawthorne was on the side of the judgmental Puritans . . . then you are an absolute idiot and should not have the title of educator in your twitter bio.”

An online horde descended, accused Ms. Cluess of racism and “violence,” and demanded that Penguin Random House cancel her contract. The publisher hasn’t complied, perhaps because Ms. Cluess tweeted a ritual self-denunciation: “I take full responsibility for my unprovoked anger toward Lorena Germán. . . . I am committed to learning more about Ms. Germán’s important work with #DisruptTexts. . . . I will strive to do better.” That didn’t stop Ms. Cluess’s literary agent, Brooks Sherman, from denouncing her “racist and unacceptable” opinions and terminating their professional relationship.

Before dealing with the wider issue surrounding Cluess and what happened next, let’s take a moment to marvel at Cox Gurdon’s ability to roundly contradict herself within the space of three sentences. Though evidently horrified by Shinn’s desire to tackle misogyny and slut-shaming when teaching The Scarlet Letter, she approves of Cluess’s claim that Hawthorn himself is critiquing the puritanical judgements of the Pilgrims – in other words, their misogyny and slut-shaming. The only difference between Shinn and Cluess’s interpretation of the text is that, whereas Shinn is thinking critically about the role of classics in his curriculum, Cluess was arguing vehemently against so much as questioning them – but even then, Shinn’s objection doesn’t extend to all of Hawthorn’s writing. In the very same tweet, he goes on to say, “Hawthorne wrote dope short stories. Black Veil, Birthmark?! Do better.” Ignoring this is yet another act of bad faith on Cox Gurdon’s part.

Which brings us to Jessica Cluess and the twitterstorm she created last month. It’s telling that, while Cox Gurdon quotes one of Cluess’s ad-hominem attacks on Lorena German, she paints the backlash against her comments as due solely to her opinions about Hawthorn. This ignores the fact that, in addition to calling German an idiot and questioning her credentials, Cluess went on a lengthy and subsequently deleted rant that was as much an attack on German personally as it was a defense of classic literature. Responding to German’s tweet, Cluess also wrote, “This anti-intellectual, anti-curiosity bullshit is poison and I will stand here and scream that it is sheer goddamn evil until my hair falls out.” How anyone can keep a straight face while characterizing a mild enjoinder to question the status quo as “anti-curiosity” is beyond me; nonetheless, in addition to calling German and her ilk evil, Cluess also told her to “sit and spin on a tack” and “stop taking drugs.” It was the ad-hominem racism of her comments that got her into trouble, and for these remarks specifically that her apology was made, not her defense of the classics. Once again, Cox Gurdon is deliberately mischaracterizing events to better paint herself and her cause as victims of persecution.

Taking an enormous leap with her next paragraph, Cox Gurdon says:

The demands for censorship appear to be getting results. “Be like Odysseus and embrace the long haul to liberation (and then take the Odyssey out of your curriculum because it’s trash),” tweeted Shea Martin in June. “Hahaha,” replied Heather Levine, an English teacher at Lawrence (Mass.) High School. “Very proud to say we got the Odyssey removed from the curriculum this year!” When I contacted Ms. Levine to confirm this, she replied that she found the inquiry “invasive.”

Dear Ms Cox Gurdon: if removing a book from a school curriculum qualifies as censorship, does this mean every book that teachers have been prevented from teaching has likewise been censored? Asking for all the marginalised authors whose work you adamantly insist has no place in a school English curriculum.

She continues:

“It’s a tragedy that this anti-intellectual movement of canceling the classics is gaining traction among educators and the mainstream publishing industry,” says science-fiction writer Jon Del Arroz, one of the rare industry voices to defend Ms. Cluess. “Erasing the history of great works only limits the ability of children to become literate.”

For those who haven’t heard of him, Jon Del Arroz has a long history of harassing people in the SFF community, including the use of racism, misogyny and homophobic slurs. Given how often he’s instigated virulent twitter attacks against people he dislikes, it’s telling that Cox Gurdon, who takes issue with the “online horde” who responded to Cluess’s racism, would view him as a benign ally. As with her self-contradicting view of Hawthorn, it’s clear that Cox Gurdon is less concerned with making a case for the classics than she is with yelling uncritically at people and ideas she personally dislikes, regardless of any overall coherence (or lack thereof).

In closing, she writes:

He’s right. If there is harm in classic literature, it comes from not teaching it. Students excused from reading foundational texts may imagine themselves lucky to get away with YA novels instead—that’s what the #DisruptTexts people want—but compared with their better-educated peers they will suffer a poverty of language and cultural reference. Worse, they won’t even know it.

And here we come to the crux of Cox Gurdon’s bias: the idea that only the classics are worthy. Students who study them will be “better-educated” than those who “get away with YA novels.” Why? Because reasons, none of which she deigns to provide beyond “a poverty of language and cultural reference.” I could write a whole separate essay about how a host of other novels, both YA and adult, modern and classic, are better suited to cultural reference than the current canon as taught in schools, but that wouldn’t answer Cox Gurdon’s point; because for her, I’d argue, cultural reference is another dog-whistle, one that refers to a specific type of white, Western cultural supremacy. Were schools to start teaching non-Western classics like Dream of the Red Chamber, for instance, she might couch her objections in different terms, but they would still be objections: her ultimate love of the classics isn’t about the age and objective worthiness of the books in question, but their whiteness and Westernness; their confirmation to a certain view of the world. Likewise, the assumption that “poverty of language” lies outside the walled bounds of the canon is elitist nonsense – as though nothing in the last seventy years has been written with skill and beauty!

Clinging to the canon in the name of a classical education makes as much sense as insisting that all students learn Latin – and I say this as someone who chose to learn (and was sufficiently priviliged to be able to learn) Latin for four years. At this point, maintaining the classics in schools is a type of literary isolationism – and as with the equivalent political policy, it’s a tactic that doesn’t work in the long term, and which ultimately speaks more to a desire for control and exclusion than to the quality of what’s being protected. After all, if the classics were obviously and unassailably better than everything that’s been written since, their status wouldn’t be threatened by the inclusion of newer works, which would automatically suffer in the comparison. That their “betterness” has to be taught to be recognised is a sign of how meagre and subjective a thing it ultimately is.

By design, the canon doesn’t teach quality, but an orthodoxy whose standards are profoundly rooted in bias. Throw it out, and let Cox Gurdon and her ilk find different hills to die on.