One of the bywords of the cultural revolution of the late 1960s when it his college campuses was “relevance.” Students, it was claimed, had the ability to decide what was “relevant” to them and to disregard the rest. What it boiled down to was two generations of history majors who never had to memorize dates and English majors who were never required to learn grammar. Now we see this effect in high school classrooms where teachers are deciding, based on skin color, what material their students should learn and what is too difficult to master. Case in point, an essay in the Washington Post over the weekend makes a case for eliminating Shakespeare from the curriculum because non-white students shouldn’t read crap by a dead white guy, and white student shouldn’t either.
I am sad that so many of my colleagues teach a canon that some white people decided upon so long ago and do it without question. I am sad that we don’t believe enough in ourselves as professionals to challenge the way that it has “always been done.” I am sad that we don’t reach beyond our own often narrow beliefs about how young people become literate to incorporate new research on how teenagers learn, and a belief that our students should be excited about what they read — and that may often mean that we need to find the time to let them choose their own literature.
I was an English major. I am a voracious reader. I have enjoyed reading some of the classics. And while I appreciate that many people enjoy re-reading texts that they have read multiple times, I enjoy reading a wide range of literature written by a wide range of ethnically-diverse writers who tell stories about the human experience as it is experienced today. Shakespeare lived in a pretty small world. It might now be appropriate for us to acknowledge him as chronicler of life as he saw it 450 years ago and leave it at that.
What I worry about is that as long as we continue to cling to ONE (white) MAN’S view of life as he lived it so long ago, we (perhaps unwittingly) promote the notion that other cultural perspectives are less important. In the 25 years that I have been a secondary teacher, I have heard countless times, from respected teachers (mostly white), that they will ALWAYS teach Shakespeare, because our students need Shakespeare and his teachings on the human condition.
So I ask, why not teach the oral tradition out of Africa, which includes an equally relevant commentary on human behavior? Why not teach translations of early writings or oral storytelling from Latin America or Southeast Asia other parts of the world? Many, many of our students come from these languages and traditions. Why do our students not deserve to study these “other” literatures with equal time and value? And if time is the issue in our classrooms, perhaps we no longer have the time to study the Western canon that so many of us know and hold dear.
Once one gets past the utter racism of this point of view and the condescension that says history-began-about-the-time-I-started-high-school — and slack-jawed wonder at the thought a very white-bread, progressive teacher teaching “oral tradition out of Africa” apparently without a text, because oral tradition — we see a nihilism, a Jacobinism, so familiar in the cultural left since Robespierre and his cronies jettisoned the calendar and converted churches into “temples of reason.” We are witnessing a belief that nothing that happened at any point in the past is relevant or useful and that personal testimony is more powerful than millenia of collective human experience.
While Ms. Dusbiber is patting herself on the back at her wisdom in deciding that race makes literature relevant, she is also hamstringing every one of her students by sending them into the world with the view that nothing is significant but their own experiences. They will dumber and, in the long run, poorer for having sat in her classroom