NEW YORK – The study of Homer’s epic poems goes back to antiquity at least, but a recent movement is attempting to throw the baby out with the bathwater and ban classics like Homer’s Odyssey in case they might offend someone. An opinion article, titled Even Homer Gets Mobbed, published in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on December 28, highlights the effort to remove classic works of literature from classrooms across the United States because those classics that make up the canon of Western literature were written in the past when offensive attitudes were prevalent throughout the world.
As Megan Cox Gurdon writes, “a sustained effort is under way to deny children access to literature. Under the slogan #DisruptTexts, critical-theory ideologues, schoolteachers and Twitter agitators are purging and propagandizing against classic texts- everything from Homer to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Dr. Seuss.”
Gurdon, who writes the WSJ Children’s Books column, continues, “Their ethos holds that children shouldn’t have to read stories written in anything other than the present-day vernacular- especially those ‘in which racism, sexism, ableism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hate are the norm,’ as young-adult novelist Padma Venkatraman writes in School Library Journal.”
According to Gurdon, “No author is valuable enough to spare, Ms. Venkatraman instructs: ‘Absolving Shakespeare of responsibility by mentioning that he lived at a time when hate-ridden sentiments prevailed, risks sending a subliminal message that academic excellence outweighs hateful rhetoric.’”
“The subtle complexities of literature are being reduced to the crude clanking of ‘intersectional’ power struggles,” Gurdon writes in the WSJ and offers the example of Seattle English teacher Evin Shinn who “tweeted in 2018 that he’d ‘rather die’ than teach The Scarlet Letter, unless Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel is used to ‘fight against misogyny and slut-shaming.’”
Another recent example of the #DisruptTexts campaign which Gurdon cited in the WSJ was “when self-described ‘antiracist teacher’ Lorena Germán complained that many classics were written more than 70 years ago: ‘Think of US society before then & the values that shaped this nation afterwards. THAT is what is in those books.’”
Gurdon noted how young-adult fiction author Jessica Cluess responded: “If you think Hawthorne was on the side of the judgmental Puritans… then you are an absolute idiot and should not have the title of educator in your twitter bio.”
Backlash against Cluess ensued online with accusations of “racism and ‘violence’” and demands that her publishing company Penguin Random House “cancel her contract,” WSJ reported, adding that “the publisher hasn’t complied, perhaps because Ms. Cluess tweeted a ritual self-denunciation: ‘I take full responsibility for my unprovoked anger toward Lorena Germán… I am committed to learning more about Ms. Germán’s important work with #DisruptTexts… I will strive to do better.’”
Cluess’ literary agent, Brooks Sherman, however, denounced “her ‘racist and unacceptable’ opinions” and dropped her as a client, WSJ reported.
“The demands for censorship appear to be getting results,” Gurdon writes, adding the following Twitter exchange: “Be like Odysseus and embrace the long haul to liberation (and then take the Odyssey out of your curriculum because it’s trash),” tweeted Shea Martin in June, to which Heather Levine, an English teacher at Lawrence [Massachusetts] High School replied, “Hahaha. Very proud to say we got the Odyssey removed from the curriculum this year!”
When Gurdon contacted Levine to confirm the removal, Levine “replied that she found the inquiry ‘invasive,’” and there was no response from the English Department chairman of Lawrence Public Schools, Richard Gorham to Gurdon’s emails, WSJ reported.
Science-fiction writer Jon Del Arroz, one of the few to defend Cluess, told WSJ, “It’s a tragedy that this anti-intellectual movement of canceling the classics is gaining traction among educators and the mainstream publishing industry. Erasing the history of great works only limits the ability of children to become literate.”
Gurdon points out in the WSJ, “He’s right. If there is harm in classic literature, it comes from not teaching it. Students excused from reading foundational texts may imagine themselves lucky to get away with YA novels instead- that’s what the #DisruptTexts people want- but compared with their better-educated peers they will suffer a poverty of language and cultural reference. Worse, they won’t even know it.”