Let Our Teachers Teach

Claude Lefebvre, "A Teacher and his Pupil"

Claude Lefebvre, “A Teacher and his Pupil”


When I wrote last week about a Virginia legislator attacking teachers for assigning Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I didn’t realize that there was a mother in an adjoining county also going after the book. And unlike the Virginia legislator she gives reasons.

Here’s from The Post’s article about Laura Murphy, a Fairfax County mother whose son was assigned to read Beloved and who has since been lobbying the school system to ban the Nobel Prize winning novel:

Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Murphy said, depicts scenes of bestiality, gang rape and an infant’s gruesome murder, content she believes could be too intense for teenage readers.

“It’s not about the author or the awards,” said Murphy, a mother of four whose eldest son had nightmares after reading Beloved for his senior-year Advanced Placement English class. “It’s about the content.

Let’s acknowledge that, once one starts plucking scenes out of literature, everything sounds bad. Paradise Lost could be described of having scenes of incest, horrific rape, and a gruesomely described birth. (I’ve posted the passage I have in mind below.) Medea, meanwhile, has child murder, as does Macbeth and Richard III. Brothers Karamazov has disturbing images of child abuse, Crime and Punishment has a graphic axe murder of an old lady, Oedipus of course is about patricide and incest (Oedipus’s children are his siblings), boys are tortured and killed in Lord of the Flies, and a particularly gruesome slaughter concludes The Odyssey. (To cite just one victim of Odysseus’s rage, Melanthius the goatherd has his nose and ears chopped off with a sword, after which his genitals are fed to the dogs and then his hands and feet are chopped off.)

But when one talks of The Odyssey, gruesome slaughter doesn’t come to mind, just as bestiality doesn’t come to mind when we talk of Beloved. (I could barely remember the scene that Murphy was talking about.) On the other hand, Sethe’s rape by whites and her subsequent killing of her daughter is central to the book, so let’s look at that.

Yes, these are disturbing scenes. They also capture some of the realities of slavery, the murder having been based on a real life instance of a woman who was about to be dragged back to slavery with her children. When you have people owning other people, horrific things happen.

High school is where students start learning about these things. In fact, even the Fairfax mother admits the the Holocaust and slavery are fit subjects for adolescents to study. Literature provides a particularly potent forum for taking them on, which is why English classes regularly teach murderous dramas. Millions of students every year study Othello, Hamlet, and King Lear (which incidentally has a scene where a man’s eyes are gouged out).

I suspect, though I can’t be absolutely sure, that some of the upset over Beloved stems from white readers’ discomfort at seeing whites victimizing blacks. I know that race was behind my own county’s decision to ban Morrison’s Song of Solomon, the objectionable scene being two pages of trash talk between African American men. It’s the kind of talk that you will hear on virtually every basketball court in America, white and black alike, but because the characters were African American, there was an added jot to the scene.

Murphy’s son claims that he had nightmares over reading one of these two scenes in Beloved (he doesn’t say which one):

Now a freshman at the University of Florida, Blake Murphy, 19, recalled reading the book before bed and having night terrors after he fell asleep.

“It was disgusting and gross,” he said. “It was hard for me to handle. I gave up on it.”

I’ll grant that teachers need to be sensitive when they teach sensitive scenes, although it’s almost impossible to anticipate every reaction. But discomfort is an integral part of the education process.

If we let students opt out of assignments whenever they feel uncomfortable, we can just imagine how many would start complaining. On the other hand, if we decided to play it safe and taught only anodyne literature, students would get the impression that literature is about nothing important. (Some already think this.) High school is a time when students want to tackle the big issues. Their brains and their social awareness are growing and they long to put them to use. They get excited about dramatically presented big ideas. High school teachers—which is to say, the professionals to whom we entrust our children—know this about their students and step up to the occasion.

Let me offer a personal example from a different era, even though it may seem a bit dated now. When I was a sophomore in high school (in 1967), English teacher Bill Goldfinch assigned Catcher in the Rye. I was a fairly repressed adolescent and I hated the book. One scene in particular struck me as inexpressibly dirty, Holden’s run-in with the pimp and the prostitute in New York City. I felt like I had been thrown into a world that I didn’t want to know about.

I now understand why I hated Catcher in the Rye. It struck me as too real and I was in rebellion against reality. I wanted to hide out in the fantasy world of Lord of the Rings. I felt as though I was being forced to grow up faster than I wanted to. The book felt like the punch in the gut that Holden gets from the pimp.

I didn’t realize at the time that Holden has the same anxiety. He is haunted by the thought of little children falling off the cliff of childhood into experience, and he fantasizes about being “the catcher” who softens their fall. The book understood me better than I understood myself.

In other words, my teacher knew what he was doing when he assigned the novel. To this day, I refer back to it as a key point in my education. It didn’t scar me. It toughened me.

I can’t make the argument better than does Jessica Berg, the teacher who engaged with the Virginia legislator, so I conclude with the The Washington Post’s account of her interchange:

Berg, who lives and teaches in Black’s Loudoun district, said she was particularly offended that lawmakers would judge a seminal work of fiction about a former slave after the Civil War based on excerpts and without reading the entire novel.

She offered to go to Black’s office and “personally teach you the novel and many others.”

“It’s ridiculous that you are trying to control education when you have no idea what it entails,” she wrote. “You do not want free thinkers. You want people to adhere to your particular version of morality which does not encompass everyone.”

She also suggested that lawmakers defer to professional educators when it comes to what is taught in the classroom.

“Being in classrooms with these students that you think are going to be poisoned by these texts shows that you do not really know the demographic you are trying to ‘protect,’” she wrote. “You are not giving them the credit that is due. Students are often more mature than we think, and as teachers we guide them through these novels in a mature manner in an academic setting so that we can discuss them in a fitting manner because that is our job, not yours.”


Paradise Lost‘s description of Sin and Death

Sin springs, Athena-like, from the head of Satan, who then rapes her. She explains later to Satan that she gave birth to Sin, who burst through her entrails and raped her himself, giving birth to ceaselessly barking dogs who live in her womb and continue propagating with each other. The symbolism is that out of sin grows more sin. The imagery involves an act of rape and incest, followed by a hideous birth, followed by another incestuous rape, followed by non-stop sibling incest.

I haven’t heard of any calls to ban Paradise Lost in high school English classes. Here’s the passage:

Alone, but long I sat not, till my womb
Pregnant by thee [Satan], and now excessive grown
Prodigious motion felt and rueful throes.
At last this odious offspring whom thou seest
Thine own begotten, breaking violent way
Tore through my entrails, that with fear and pain
Distorted, all my nether shape thus grew
Transform’d: but he my inbred enemy 
Forth issued, brandishing his fatal dart
Made to destroy: I fled, and cry’d out Death;
Hell trembled at the hideous Name, and sigh’d
From all her Caves, and back resounded Death.
I fled, but he pursued (though more, it seems, 
Inflamed with lust then rage) and swifter far,
Mee overtook his mother all dismayed,
And in embraces forcible and foul
Ingendring with me, of that rape begot
These yelling Monsters that with ceasless cry
Surround me, as thou sawst, hourly conceived
And hourly born, with sorrow infinite
To me, for when they list into the womb
That bred them they return, and howl and gnaw
My wowels, their repast; then bursting forth 
A fresh with conscious terrors vex me round,
That rest or intermission none I find.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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