Tuesday, April 3, 2018


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.”

Sounds familiar?

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. 


  1. I think we shield our children too much these days. I personally don't. My daughter has understood death since she was old enough to speak full sentences. She has a great understanding of the world because I talk to her about things. She understands that things might be different now, but that doesn't change the fact that we once did things very differently. She was appalled when she read Freedom Crossing this year, and I was glad. She should be appalled that people once thought it was okay to own another human being. I don't shield her from that. That makes her a better person because she can see what was wrong with the way people once thought. And she even makes connections to injustices today. So I'm with you, Mirka.

    1. I don't think stories about other times are the issue. It's stories written then that convey the mindset of their time that educators object to. I feel that if they are literary masterpieces they should be taught with explanation. We need to be familiar with the thinking, not only our contemporary take.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly Mirka. We have to know where we're coming from. I hope you convinced a few to give the classics a try. Bless you!

  3. I so agree with your post. You can't truly know where you are without knowing where you've been. This is true of history and culture.

  4. I agree as well. I was exposed to the classics when I attended school. Yes, we're more "politically correct" in our use of language today, but that doesn't alter the value of time-tested literature. Yes, give the historical context. As an adult reader, I automatically understand that, though I must admit that at times the racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, etc. of earlier works still make me twinge.

    1. Well, they make me twinge AND cringe. As well they should.

  5. I agree that classics should be read. If we can't examine the mistakes of the past, how can we possibly appreciate the developments of society? As an avid lover of history, I think it's a mistake to omit our past for the sake of sheltering people. There's enough of that as is, and it worries me there's the opposite going on: brainwashing. =)

  6. I remember that Nathan Cohen, the drama critic on The Toronto Star in the 60s, thought that The Merchant of Venice shouldn't be taught or produced any more.

    I think these problematic classics can and should be taught (and plays performed) as long as they are put in the proper context by teachers or in the introduction to the play in the theatre program.

    Ignoring the past in an attempt to tidy up literature is much more dangerous than presenting it and explaining why this or that word or attitude or bigotry is unacceptable today.

    (I feel the same way about history curricula, but teachers and schools seem to disagree.)