In Defense of Teaching Troubled Texts in Troubling Times

by Deborah Appleman

“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 of different viewpoints is modeled, 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. (“There’s More than One Way to Ban a Book,” July 24, 2022)

In my most recent book, Literature and the New Culture Wars: Triggers, Cancel Culture, and the Teacher’s Dilemma (W. W. 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 is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of the book.

Over the past few decades, there have been many disconcerting challenges to texts in both the university and high school literary canon, but a recent challenge hit especially close to home. The school where decades ago I began my high school teaching career just announced that they were going to temporarily pause the teaching of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which had been assigned to ninth-grade language arts students. Of Mice and Men, a book about itinerant migrant workers that is typically considered an American classic, has been frequently challenged and has been banned at numerous schools, whose administrators cite its profanity and racial slurs as unacceptable. The letter announcing the pause cited recent “communication from families and staff expressing concerns about racist stereotypes and slurs used in the novel” (Verges, 2020)…

Challenging Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is nothing new. It is among the most challenged books of the last few decades. From 2000 to 2009, it ranked among the top ten most challenged books in America, and it sits at number 8 on the American Library Association’s list of all-time most challenged books. Challenges have included complaints about “profanity,” “morbid and depressing themes,” and the author’s alleged “anti-business attitude.” Other complaints have accused the book of being demeaning and derogatory to several marginalized populations, including African Americans, women, and the developmentally disabled. As with other novels that have been challenged, one issue is the language. Steinbeck, as well as his advocates, asserted that his intention was to create an accurate portrayal of the people in central California. That meant writing dialogue that sounded the way real people talked, with profanity, slurs, and slang. In fact, the language in the book is the main reason it has been challenged so much. The n-word appears nine times in the book.

A couple of decades later, the challenges to the novel have been renewed, another casualty of the literary cancel culture this book will address. This latest assault on the novel seems to belong to a larger movement, markedly different in its ideological bent. According to this movement, the literature curriculum needs to be purged of works that offend. There are whole movements dedicated to doing just that—removing texts that have reductive or offensive portrayals of characters, centering works by authors of color and other underrepresented groups, refraining from teaching works that perpetuate the dominant culture, or reading texts to simply expose their flawed ideologies.

In a stunningly revealing explanation that goes to the heart of the problems with the assumptions about why we read literature and about the role certain texts may have in a student’s literary education, a spokesperson for the school district that paused the teaching of Of Mice and Men stated that rather than teaching the novel, there are other curricular materials that can “address the skills the novel is supposed to teach. Students have been reassigned a series of short stories that teach the same skills,” the school said (Verges, 2020). To be fair, in this particular case, the school district said it was pausing, not necessarily permanently abandoning the teaching of the novel. Rather, according to the school district’s letter, the goal of suspending the lessons was to “determine how the content of this novel was addressed during the curriculum so we could respond to the concerns in a meaningful and informed manner” (Verges, 2020). The implication is that the novel only serves to deliver a discrete and articulated set of skills, skills that are easily transferable from one literary text (e.g., piece of curricular material) to another. Although the teaching of literacy skills is clearly important, the teaching of literature is about much more than delivering skills. Reading literature has larger purposes, including an invitation to reflect on oneself and one’s culture, developing empathy and understanding of others, and developing aesthetic sensibilities, among other goals. Additionally, given their varied rhetorical styles, historical and geographical contexts, and artistic as well as social purposes, novels are not easily interchangeable with other works of fiction—including other novels.

This is a very different argument than proposing that different novels are considered to offer students equally valuable literary experiences. This statement reveals a complete lack of understanding of the value and purposes of literature, values that are being undermined by this current movement of literary cancel culture. This is not to say that this book, Of Mice and Men, in itself is the topic. I am not making a canonical argument here. I am not arguing on behalf of particular books; I am arguing to preserve the importance of literary reading.

Literary reading, to invoke Louise Rosenblatt (1938), is both an efferent and an aesthetic experience. Put another way, literature helps us learn to think and encourages us to feel. Literature provides windows into the lives and perspectives of others and mirrors into our own experiences. Literature helps us to understand what it means to be human. Through literature, we will be both awed by the beauty and confronted with the complexity of the human condition. Therefore, through literature we will confront some ugly truths about humankind, truths that should not be avoided. The power of literature should not be removed by cancellation or censure or be blunted by trigger warnings.

Literature and the New Culture Wars is a timely and eloquent argument for a reasoned approach to determining what literature still deserves to be read and taught and discussed.

Deborah Appleman
Deborah Appleman

Deborah Appleman is the author of Literature and the New Culture Wars: Triggers, Cancel Culture, and the Teacher’s Dilemma (W. W. Norton, 2022) and Words No Bars Can Hold: Literacy Learning in Prison (W. W. Norton, 2019). She lives in Minnesota and is the is the Hollis L. Caswell professor and chair of Educational Studies at Carleton College. Since 2007, Deborah has taught language, literature, and creative writing courses at a high-security prison for men in the upper Midwest.

Deborah Appleman’s introduction to the excerpt from her new book first appeared in an article titled “In Defense of Teaching Troubled Texts in Troubling Times” and appeared on pages 23-25 of Volume 28, Issue 1 of California English, published in September 2022. Full citation: Appleman, D. (2022). In defense of teaching troubled texts in troubling times. California English, 28 (1), 23-25.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: