As I retire from teaching, exchanging my piece of chalk for a journalist’s pen, I can’t help but dole out a parting shot to the textbook publishers. I have tolerated them, I have tried to turn a blind eye to their machinations, their half-truths, their lies by omission, their lies of commission. The time has come now to settle accounts. It may turn into a series of essays, or perhaps a lifetime of excoriation. And despite my retirement, my life extends far into the horizon, I am not old. So wrote T.S. Eliot, “Life is very long.”
Literature textbooks insist on including material by “diverse” authors, most of which clearly should not be there. By “should not” I mean to say that this literature has no literary merit. As readers know well, this is done in the name of multiculturalism. But one could also say that the textbook publishers have a real agenda—something more nefarious—in addition to the purported agenda.
Do minority students care about reading literature from their own? Experience tells me no, a resounding no. Most students viscerally dislike all literature, with the possible exception of young adult books about vampires, which some girls enjoy. Further, literature which is dealing explicitly with cultural and racial issues is simply awkward reading in a diverse classroom.
To qualify that last idea: students prefer easily comprehensible literature, and diverse authors such as Gwendolyn Brooks are easy to read. They’re easy to read because they merely scratch the surface of artistic depth. They lack the subtlety of meaning, and majesty of language, and are therefore quite straightforward in theme and diction. This makes diverse literature admittedly well suited to the literal minds of adolescents.
The purported agenda of the educational complex is to reflect diversity of the students and raise their self-esteem. The practical outcome of this philosophy is a literature curriculum which actually more resembles a civil rights social justice curriculum. From Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King, English class has become “down for the struggle.”
As an example, I sometimes ask students what their favorite speech is, or to name one they find significant. Other than no response at all, the only other I heard was “I Have a Dream,” which is an admittedly significant speech. But would it kill them to learn about perhaps a Churchill speech? Does that not also have literary merit?
To further illustrate this point, here’s from Rita Dove’s poem on Rosa Parks, included in an English textbook:
How she sat there;
the time right inside a place
so wrong it was ready
That trim name with
its dream of a bench
to rest on. Her sensible coat.
Clearly social studies has been subsumed by the civil rights movement, and now English too. We can say, then, that the entire humanities is basically a social justice course of study. I once taught civics, and was asked by a Spanish teacher, “So civics…that’s civil rights, right?”
The joining thread to all the selections is that there’s always an ulterior motive as to why a given author is included in an anthology or textbook. This is excluding the classics which remain in the curriculum, more or less, though in an absurd juxtaposition next to multicultural literature. One cannot very well get rid of Shakespeare without raising some eyebrows, but certainly other dead white males may be dispensed with without further ado.
Occasionally there is a white author of whom no one has heard. What could possibly be the explanation of including such an author in a literature textbook for modern America? Take Doris Lessing. Her bio reads: as part of a small community of white farmers in Rhodesia, she “saw firsthand the injustices of white minority rule and racial segregation” and whose books “deal critically” with colonial society. Oh, that’s why she’s included. And I’m sure she would love to return to the non-colonial Zimbabwe, where presumably there is no more injustice. (Though to be fair, her writing is not bad.)
A perhaps surprising staple in literature textbooks is the Iroquois Constitution. This most bizarre of governmental agreements is now put on equal literary and historical importance as the Constitution itself:
We spread upon those seats, spread soft with the feathery down of the globe thistle, there beneath the shade of the spreading branches of the Tree of Peace. There shall you sit and watch the Council Fire of the Confederacy of the Five Nations, and all the affairs of the Five Nations shall be transacted at this place before you, Adodorhoh, and your cousin Lords, by the Confederate Lords of the Five Nations.
Weren’t Jefferson and Franklin also sitting on “globe thistle” when they sorted out our founding documents? So the parallels are readily apparent.
Students are already confused enough. The last thing they need is to slog through the impenetrable customs of the Iroquois Confederation. This is ironic in light of all the dubious claims of cultural discrimination in the SATs, most notoriously, the use of the word “yacht,” which is supposed to be biased against minorities who have no experience with yachts. Now we’ve really come full circle, with Native American texts such as the above and their esoteric terminology—and no one is raising a red flag? One can only conclude that cultural bias, despite being the rallying cry of the left, is not the real issue, but only an alibi for some other agenda.
Giving further evidence of what may be referred to as cultural bias (to appropriate a term), there are numerous pieces of Hispanic literature in textbooks and other test material which make generous use of Spanish words, for example, abeulita (grandma), meant perhaps to signal authenticity. This could just as easily, and in fact more plausibly, be viewed as culturally biased against everyone else who is not Spanish speaking. That is to say, if we are to be on a hair trigger alert for cultural bias, certainly having texts with words and phrases in a different language should set off that trigger. (Granted, there are footnotes to define foreign words, but there is no guarantee that students will avail themselves of footnotes—which require extra reading, mind you.)
And of course every literature collection treats us to the musings of Maya Angelou:
The caged bird sings
With a fearful trill
Of things unknown
But longed for still
Ms. Angelou, one could say, is easy to read, easy to digest, with not much “there there,” as they say in politics. John Derbyshire refers to her work as “semi-literate gibberish” and “formless meaningless babble.” (Other than that, he really likes it.) And yet one must admit, again, it is tailor made for the adolescent mind…
I well understand the arguments in favor of the rainbow hodgepodge of multicultural literature that constitutes our English textbooks and anthologies. Yet aesthetically it does not work, this we must all concede. The pairing of a Shakespearean sonnet with a poem which is meant to represent diversity is just too grotesque to countenance. More to come on this morose topic.
Malcolm Unwell is a lachrymose chronicler of America gone wrong and aspires to be a malevolent voice in journalism. Contact him.