A high school English teacher in Georgia delivers a withering critique of the conservative crusade to undermine public education. Ian Altman suggests that what drives the effort is fear of enlightenment — and fear of being found out:
The current horde of book banners and goons at education board meetings (not a new thing in this country) could be seen as evidence of how education fails, thanks to teachers dutifully following instructions and carefully avoiding the touchy political matters that lie at the heart of any serious study of literature and history. These adults’ caterwauling grew out of the wholesome compliance and deference to rules and decorum they learned in school, though without seeming to have paid much attention to what they read. We do not need to look beyond ostensibly respectable classics to see the irony that almost anything worth reading and studying will be filled with morally ambiguous and repugnant characters, narrate foolish or appalling behavior, and cause us to engage with discomfiting ideas. The desire to avoid good literature — or to teach it badly, as though it were somehow safe — comes at the cost of intellectual and moral stunting.
It is not unusual, for example, to find antiheroes in American war novels: Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage has Henry Fleming fleeing the battle and seeking to overcome his shame; in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Frederic Henry takes shrapnel while eating a piece of cheese, saying that words like courage are obscene, and escapes summary execution from his own allies; Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 identifies not the Nazis but the U.S. Army bureaucracy as Yossarian’s enemy. As for family values, recall Mercutio teasing Romeo with an image of anal sex, Edna Pontellier’s adultery and suicide in The Awakening, Odysseus and Telemachus torturing Melanthius to death and feeding his genitals to dogs. And race cannot be sidelined: the tragedy of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! is caused not by incest but by the threat of miscegenation, and Richard Wright’s Native Son spins a doomed web with an executioner at its heart. We don’t need any theory, critical or otherwise, to justify teaching these books. This is the work of a public school teacher. Teachers didn’t invent the subversion threaded throughout canonical literature or the thorns and complexity of history. Reading anything worthwhile means discovering those ideas, as I did when a student’s comment about the theft of Black Americans’ history caused me to rethink how I taught August Wilson’s play The Piano Lesson. As I thought about what he said, it became clear to me how different it is merely to have history than to possess it, with all the ethical and political weight that possession carries. Teaching that through the play’s symbolism gave students a new way to interpret some facets of America’s twentieth century. Perhaps some adults are frightened not of what students will learn about themselves but of what they’ll learn about their parents and older generations.
Those who trouble over this could learn something from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In it Ivan dreams that the Grand Inquisitor arrests the risen Christ to preserve happiness and the security of not having to choose good over evil, arguing that having the power of choice does not help the church, that moral freedom is too awful a burden for most people to bear. We wouldn’t be wrong to detect Lucifer’s pride in the inquisitor’s arguments. For all their talk of liberty, those who would threaten and abuse teachers and proclaim which books are evil seem awfully afraid of their children having the power to choose virtue.