Shakespeare Wasn't Woke

The #DisruptTexts movement is pushing teachers to ditch the classics. It's depriving children of their heritage.

Activist teachers, critical-theory ideologues and hashtag iconoclasts are trying to sever the connection between schoolchildren and many of the most important books of their culture. They’re using a good idea—that kids ought to have access to books with protagonists of different races and ethnic backgrounds—to promote a pernicious idea: that children are harmed if they encounter classic literature that doesn’t conform to contemporary sensibilities about race, gender and sexuality. According to this, great works of literature are not humanistic expressions that transcend cultural boundaries; they are instruments of oppression.

As a children’s-book critic, I cannot emphasize enough how serious this effort is. We now have a situation where English teachers in American schools oppose the teaching of Shakespeare lest students be hurt by the violence, misogyny and racism in his plays. According to Lorena Germán, a self-described “antiracist teacher” and a founder of the grassroots campaign #DisruptTexts, there is “an oversaturation of Shakespeare in our schools.” She asserts that Shakespeare is no more valuable than any other playwright and that his work harbors “problematic depictions and characterizations.” For five centuries, readers and play-goers all over the world have rejoiced in the Bard, seeing his body of work as a near-miracle of invention, wit and pathos. To Germán, Shakespeare’s exalted cultural position is “about white supremacy and colonization.” 

She and her collaborators in #DisruptTexts—Tricia Ebarvia, Kim Parker and Julia Torres—say their mission is “to challenge the traditional canon in order to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum that our students deserve.” These women are increasingly consequential in educational circles: winning awards, giving keynote addresses at conferences, running teacher workshops. They have a column on the website of the National Council of Teachers of English. In November, Penguin Random House released eight #DisruptTexts study guides for teacher to use in the classroom, including for modish works such as Antiracist Baby, a children’s book written by the activist and author Ibram X. Kendi to inculcate toddlers (and their parents) into his Manichean ideology.

#DisruptTexts also has a strong Twitter presence and ardent supporters ready to denounce its critics, as became evident when a young-adult writer, Jessica Cluess, criticized Germán and the movement’s ideas late last year, tweeting, “This anti-intellectual, anti-curiosity bullshit is poison and I will stand here and scream that it is sheer goddamn evil until my hair falls out, I do not care.” But she was made to care. After a barrage of online accusations of racism and “violence,” and demands that her publisher punish the author, Cluess released an abject apology. It was not enough to stave off denunciation by her own agent, Brooks Sherman, who dropped her.

Crucially, the #DisruptTexts founders operate as models and mentors to like-minded schoolteachers across the country. In testimony posted on the #DisruptTexts website, a Michigan high school teacher, Carrie Mattern, bemoans “the classics that plague our curriculum” and describes her efforts to “disrupt” To Kill a Mockingbird and Romeo and Juliet. Her subversion of Shakespeare, she explains, involves inviting students to mark how few examples the play contains “of what we would deem a ‘healthy’ relationship today.”

She concludes: “Learning from #DisruptTexts, books like White Fragility, and also learning that I have a lot to unlearn, I can begin to recognize my mistakes and also dismantle the framework of privilege that I used to teach from. I know in the future I will be better equipped to point out the oppressive structure that both [Harper] Lee and Shakespeare rely on—that is, if I even return to teaching either story at all.” 

The rationale of those who seek to sideline the so-called “white canon” rests on four claims:

  1. Children should see themselves (with “the self” defined according to narrow identity categories) mirrored in literature;

  2. Children need stories written in present-day vernacular that are relevant to their lives;

  3. Books depicting retrograde or bigoted attitudes injure young readers;

  4. Teaching classic texts that fall afoul of these standards is perpetuating oppression.  

There’s no question that canonical fashions do, and should, change. Few today bother with Goethe’s once-lauded The Sorrows of Young Werther, while all would be wise to read Zora Neale Hurston’s once-obscure Their Eyes Were Watching God. Literature is becoming more diverse and globalized as societies reckon with past injustice and attempt to be more receptive to voices and stories that may have been missed.

Unfortunately, activists in American education do not simply want to expand the scope of what children read, or merely induct them into the joys of reading by providing more accessible texts. They want to delegitimize classic books to shape a canon more to their tastes, and seek to discredit anyone who defends them. On a Zoom call near you, teachers may be convincing students to see The Great Gatsby as tainted by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s male gaze, claiming that it perpetuates the myth of meritocracy; or that Arthur Miller’s The Crucible marginalizes the abused women accused of witchcraft while centering white Christian males; or that Homer’s Odyssey is “trash.”

The effect is to turn literature into politics, stripping books and the characters they contain of any life or imaginative power. Worse still is the implication that today’s children are incapable of appreciating works of literary art as art. The proposition that nonwhite children in particular should be steered away from canonical writers because they cannot be expected to connect with such material is itself racist. Are nonwhite children less imaginative and empathic than others? Have they less right to meet characters known and loved by people all over the world?

As a child, Zora Neale Hurston devoured the myths of the Greeks and Vikings, and traced her literary awakening to the thrilling moment when she first heard an English teacher read Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Toni Morrison loved the Greeks too, and Ralph Ellison admired Hemingway. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote movingly in 1903 of his encounters with the greats:

I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.

Given the choice, young readers might gravitate toward contemporary texts, with their easier vocabulary, comparatively simple sentences and topicality. But for most children, English classes at school constitute their only chance to make the acquaintance of classic books and their often sophisticated language and syntax. They may not love the experience—who loves every assignment?—but they gain the opportunity to choose what they wish from humanity’s cultural treasure-chest.

Children have a right to great works without adults warding them off or “contextualizing” them according to immiserating critical theories. Classic books—the humane, experimental, challenging stories that have earned their place in the literary pantheon because they have been so well-loved and influential—belong to today’s kids as much as to yesterday’s. Woke activists say they are bringing equity. In truth, they are depriving children of their heritage. They have no moral right to do so.

Du Bois described his experience of literary communion as being “wed with Truth.” He wrote: “Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America?”

Is this the life you grudge our schoolchildren, O #DisruptTexts?

Meghan Cox Gurdon, children’s book critic for The Wall Street Journal, is author of The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction.

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