Dr. SJ loves to read books. Over the past few years, she’s taken to reading the books up for book prizes, which both she and her book club expect to be the best new books coming out. They tend to have one thing in common: they are about a young woman in another country, what we used to call a third-world country, who is overwhelmed by her sad feelings about her personal struggles. They are, I’m told, tedious.
Literature once reached up, elevated us to higher truths uttered in greater prose. If Disrupt Texts has anything to say about it, these will be the only books your child ever reads.
Disrupt Texts is representative of a broader, growing movement in K-12 education to teach literature through a social justice lens, with an emphasis on centering the voices and experiences of BIPOC (black, Indigenous, and people of color) authors and students. Informed by antiracist pedagogy, what we call Social Justice Lit is committed to reimagining “the traditional canon in order to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum.” Its ambitious mission is nothing less than to create English Language Arts curricula that “dismantle systems of oppression.”
As such, Social Justice Lit asks students to focus on how texts “support or challenge issues of representation, fairness, or justice” and whether they “perpetuate or subvert dominant power dynamics and ideologies.” (You can see representative examples of the Social Justice Lit approach here, here and here.)
This may not be your vision of education, but then, you’re not a teacher. You don’t get to choose the curriculum and when they discuss books in school, you won’t be able to raise your hand and dispute that the only reason to read Shakespeare is to criticize him for his awfulness and use him as an example of everything that’s horrible about literature.
The guiding assumption behind Social Justice Lit is that the canon is “for white people, by white people, and about white people.” Dominated by dead white men, it necessarily excludes and alienates BIPOC students. According to Disrupt Texts, the notion that we teach Shakespeare because his work is “universal” or “timeless” is a shameful rationalization. Instead, Shakespeare’s exalted place in the literary canon is really about “white supremacy and colonization.”
This is part one of a two-part assault on literature. It compels the hatred of what has been traditionally understood as great literature because it’s Books Too White, essentially lousy lit that was only adored because it was written by white people, as if white people only wrote a paltry handful of books over the past few millennia and so they became the standard because anything written by a white person was elevated to literature cult status and rammed down the throats of BIPOC students.
Part two is that the eradication of white supremacy lit leaves a void that must be filled, and that’s where social justice lit comes in.
A high school teacher from Sacramento, California explains:
I am not supposed to dislike Shakespeare. But I do. And not only do I dislike Shakespeare because of my own personal disinterest in reading stories written in an early form of the English language that I cannot always easily navigate, but also because there is a WORLD of really exciting literature out there that better speaks to the needs of my very ethnically-diverse and wonderfully curious modern-day students.
But if you look at Social Justice Lit’s lists of recommended books, it is immediately apparent how narrow their definition of “relevant” is. Young adult fiction focusing on issues of race and identity make up the overwhelming majority of selected texts. These are books such as Brown Girl Dreaming, The Hate You Give, and Frankly in Love — books that Social Justice Lit educators believe will “represent and validate” the “experiences and cultures’’ of their students.
Is there anything wrong with including modern books that are written by people of color about their feelings and experiences in the curriculum? Is there anything wrong with this? Amna Khakid offers two challenges.
First, in its current form, Social Justice Lit is promoting a cult of relevance that advances an extremely narrow vision of what kinds of texts will engage and inspire students.
Second, it is encouraging a tyranny of presentism in which literary analysis revolves around interpreting — and judging — texts based on 21st-century, socially progressive values and concerns.
While her criticisms are sound, they are still framed within the Overton Window of Pedagogy, accepting the basic notion that literature that has withstood the test of time, has proven itself worthy of standing out among the millions of tomes written as the handful worthy of teaching students who aspire to take their place as educated adults some day. She accepts, at least to some extent, the premise that what’s held out as great literature, from Homer to Shakespeare to Hemingway and beyond, really is just the perpetuation of racism, sexism, and xenophobia.
What is missing from the calculus is that great literature elevates a society to share common truths about humanity. We make reference to Shakespeare all the time. Our children will have no clue what we’re talking about because they’ve never read Shakespeare, or if they did, will view our references as hate speech because they’ve been taught by grade school English teachers that’s all Shakespeare is good for. Think of it as a literary Tower of Babel, where we no longer share a commonality of literature and what it contributes to our understanding of the world and ourselves.
The other side is that social justice lit reduces us to our least remarkable selves, wallowing in banal feelings, usually misery, to validate our most shallow experiences. Someone wrote a book about a sad teenager from Africa who shares your skin color and, like you, suffers from teenage angst. It’s the literature version of “I’m Okay, You’re Okay,” except without any greater purpose than to empower children to indulge their worst feelings.
I make no pretense of being qualified to decide what should constitute great literature or lousy literature. Assuming there are books written by people of color in the past decade that are every bit as great as Shakespeare, they deserve to be read and taught. But that’s not what the Disrupt Texts folks have in mind.
By predetermining which texts will speak to whom based on crude racial and cultural categories, we potentially deprive people of some of the most transformative reading experiences they may have.
Do readers have to “see themselves” in the writer or story to find it “relevant” to their life and, therefore, be interested and inspired? When you look in the mirror, do you see Hamlet, no matter who you are? Is your sole purpose in reading to find something to hate about literature?
This turns reading literature into a whack-a-mole game of spot the “problematic” -ism. It encourages students to take a self-righteous, judgmental stance toward fictional characters, scanning texts for any sign that they fail to live up to today’s socially progressive standards.
Just as we can’t teach “woke math” where two plus two equals five if you feel it does, and expect students to function in society, we will become intellectually barren if we deny students great literature solely because it was written by some old white guy who lived in times we deem awful today.