What should students in high school and college English classes read?
Whether you think they should be reading Ovid and Melville, or only books written by diverse, contemporary authors, or books with no explicit sex, or books with no explicit violence, most people have an opinion on how and what teachers teach in their classrooms.
And yet, no one expects to know what doctors should prescribe, or what arguments lawyers should make in court. With most professions, there’s an assumption of professional competence and knowledge. A doctor, after examining a patient, is thought to be more likely to diagnose a problem correctly than is some random person off the street, who has no medical training and has never met the person in question. But when it comes to assigning texts, or determining a curriculum, teacher expertise and experience is regularly disregarded.
Americans’ low opinion of teacher competence was highlighted—again—in a couple of ways over the last week. At Crafton Hills College in San Bernardino, a student was so upset by the sexual content in an English 250 graphic novel course—which required her to read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll’s House, and Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man—that she staged protests on campus alongside her parents. “I expected Batman and Robin, not pornography,” the student declared, adding that she believed the books should be “eradicated from the system. I don’t want them taught anymore. I don’t want anyone else to have to read this garbage.” Instead, administrators agreed to provide a content warning for the books in future classes (a more reasonable outcome than in South Carolina, where the use of Bechdel’s Fun Home in freshman reading courses at public colleges prompted the state legislature to slash the schools’ funding.)
At the same time as the Crafton Hills controversy was unfolding, Dana Dusbiber, a veteran high school English teacher in Sacramento, California, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post explaining why she didn’t want to teach Shakespeare to her class.
Dusbiber said she is not fond of Shakespeare herself, and that her mostly non-white students don’t connect with the work. “What I worry about is that as long as we continue to cling to ONE (white) MAN’S view of life as he lived it so long ago, we (perhaps unwittingly) promote the notion that other cultural perspectives are less important,” she writes. Moving away from Shakespeare is tricky, however, because his works are specifically referenced in Common Core English standards.
The question of whether to teach Shakespeare isn’t just a personal decision for Dusbiber; it’s a matter of public policy. Shakespeare is ratified and to some degree enforced through state standards and administrative decisions. Dusbiber, as a teacher, is making an argument that she should have the authority to assign texts, just as teachers at Crafton Hills or in South Carolina want the authority to assign Fun Home. Parents, state boards, or students may object to those decisions because they condemn homosexuality, or because they condemn explicit sex, or because they think Shakespeare is the most important author ever and everyone should read him. But whatever the reasoning, the baseline assumption is that someone outside the classroom is better positioned to determine what gets read inside of it.
It’s natural, of course, for parents and policy-makers to feel that they have some stake in what kids are learning, just as it’s natural for the public and policy makers to have a (large) stake in medical policy. But there’s a line between broad accountability and micromanagement, and the US approach to education frequently crosses it. As Jal Mehta argues in his 2013 book The Allure of Order, high school teaching has never been considered fully professionalized, in part because it was originally dominated by women. The history of education reform has, he says, basically been a history of trying to give someone—anyone!—other than teachers control of the classroom, whether that be principals, politicians, testing gurus, or fresh-faced Teach for America volunteers.
Dana Goldstein makes similar points in her 2014 book The Teacher Wars. “The history of education reform shows … recurring attacks on veteran educators,” she writes. Secondary teachers aren’t respected, and aren’t even trusted. College professors have more power and autonomy—but even that is being eroded as colleges rely more and more on adjuncts, who are paid a fraction of the salary and afforded fewer protections from state or administrative pronouncements.
I’ve helped develop curriculum materials on and off for 20 years, and I am wearisomely familiar with the dreary calculus of offensiveness with which teachers are routinely confronted. Just about the last thing you think about when picking a passage for a course book is whether or not it will interest or educate students anymore. Instead, you worry about who will be offended—by a mention of dating or of natural disasters or of evolution, by a criticism of authority, or by a suggestion that America has not always, in every way, been an egalitarian utopia. The public and politicians alike too often view education as a threat rather than an opportunity; they seem transfixed by the danger that students might learn some fact, or be stained with some knowledge, that will corrupt their purity, and/or lead them to Communism. Teachers must be policed to prevent such dire consequences.
Some people don’t want students to read Fun Home in school. Some people want students to read Shakespeare in school. Whether or not these opinions contain merit individually, crowd-sourcing student curriculums is ultimately a recipe for bland incoherence. Accountability is not bad, but how can we expect teachers to impart a love of learning if we don’t trust them to think for themselves? If we want education reform, let’s start with the radical idea that teachers know what they’re doing, and should be allowed to do it.