At the SCBWI meeting I wrote about in the last post, I had an interesting discussion with the younger writers near me. It was about current social sensitivities and the classics of kid-lit and general literature. Do we read/teach/recommend books written only decades ago that convey notions about gender/race/faith no longer deemed acceptable to us?
Think of the N-word used liberally in Huckleberry Finn, one of the great American novels for any age. Think of the misuse of Native American terms in The Sign of the Beaver, another great book. For that matter, think of any of Jane Austen’s main characters whose sole goal in life was to marry, (preferably well$$) or Shakespeare’ Merchant of Venice whose Jewish character is villainously greedy in the classic anti-Semitic tradition.
And so on, and on, and on.
Some parents opt to keep the classics out of their kids’ library. Many school districts have similar policies. They mean well, I’ll give them that. They want their young’uns to feel safe at all times. They feel these currents can wait until the kids are grown and able to understand the context.
I’m on the other side of this debate. I think the classics should be taught, albeit with a contemporary forward by a knowledgeable historian. Because, if we wait until kids are “old enough,” they will be suspicious. If people are exposed to mindsets of another time only when they are adults, presuming they were carefully shielded until then, they are likely to feel incredulous.
“How come I never heard of it?”
“If this were so, I’m sure I would have seen/read about it before.”
“Yeah, they teach it in history class. But I never saw it in anything that was written in those days.”
And, finally— “This is fake news. Fake information from evil interests looking to take over our minds.”
Great books should be taught, and taught unaltered, and to any age. With it, the historical context should also be explained.
Only those who know where we came from can be truly educated and prepared to make thoughtful judgements, which, I presume, is the purpose of education.
I made this pitch to the poor souls who happened to be sitting by me, and I am not sure I convinced anyone. They listened politely. But I got the feeling that reading The Classics was not a priority, and no one wants to stick his or her neck out where the politically sensitive might bite.
But I said my peace, just as I do here, uncensored. Teach the classics and don’t change a single period.
Seems to me particularly poignant at this time of Passover, when my people remember and remind and teach our young that were were once slaves in Egypt. Because not knowing, not remembering, and not teaching-- is a recipe for future disasters.