Article by Julia Steiny

Edwatch by Julia Steiny: Classic lit no longer fit for children

01:00 AM EDT on Sunday, September 21, 2003

For years I had wondered why the kids in schools seemed to be reading such dreck in their English classes. Not all, but much of the assigned reading and classroom textbooks seemed awkward, vacuously well-meaning and written with bland prose that had a programmed feel to it.

In the “serious literature,” gratuitously depressing darkness seemed to be taking the place of real depth. What passed as passion often sounded to me like whining. When the classics make it into the syllabus, which is rare except for the obligatory Shakespeare, only the same tedious handful seem to be acceptable, never Twain, George Elliot or my dear Dickens, all of whom seem to have disappeared from education. Literary canons need to be flexible about including new and rediscovered writers, but why completely chuck the old masters?

In the summer of 2002, I found my answer in Diane Ravitch’s Daedalus article, “Education after the Culture Wars,” which was expanded into her chilling book, The Language Police.

Ravitch’s story begins as the first Bush presidency transitions into the Clinton era, when the federal government was starting to develop national standards for history and literature, along with grade-level assessments. The feds pulled together high-end educators including Ravitch, an expert on the history of education, to work on the project which did not come to completion.

While reading dozens of passages under consideration for the assessments, Ravitch writes in The Culture Wars, “I realized that the readings themselves had a cumulative subtext: the hero was never a white boy . . . Almost without exception, white boys were portrayed as weak and dependent.” Indeed, “The passages, I discovered, had been edited to eliminate anything that might be perceived by anyone as a source of bias.”

Not only was bias eliminated, but according to one set of textbook guidelines for appropriateness — of which every textbook company has a similarly “correct” set — the passages also have to be “free of subject matter that many would consider controversial or emotionally charged.” So, collections of readings for English classes would be as free as possible of anything that has the power to move a student to some passion about a story — for or against the author’s point or point of view. Moved to tears is out of the question.

We would eliminate, then, my own memorable seventh grade experience of an out-loud reading of Bret Harte’s Outcast of Poker Flats, which dissolved the entire class. How too bad.

Ravitch explores the amazing length to which the English classroom is being scrubbed to meet sanitary standards, but here’s one specific: “A passage from a well-known fable was also edited to remove the moral of the story. The original had ended with the conclusion that “God helps those who help themselves.” To avoid any reference to a deity, the editors had replaced this phrase with the advice that “People should try to work things out for themselves whenever possible.”

Perhaps the clunkiness of the new moral doesn’t bother you; perhaps to you the new says roughly the same thing as the old, though I don’t think so. But surely we are all adequately steeped in the First Amendment to feel uncomfortable with the arrogance of changing the original author’s words. Think back to the parent who busted the New York regents exam for sanitizing a bit of Issac Singer to remove references to religion, as if Jewish was not one of the principal lenses through which Singer shows us his world. The sanitizers seemed to feel we’d all be better off if this otherwise fine writer were not Jewish.

So we are no longer acquainting youth with the literature of different cultures, but indoctrinating them, in correct culture, of which there is apparently only one. We’re not really celebrating difference, because a writer can neither let her imagination rip nor drill deeply into the social realities of her world. Writers who do can kiss off getting published by any company who deals in texts for schools. Acceptable texts need to support the idea that we are homogenizing into one, bland, specifically uncultivated human cohort, free of troublesome distinctions from one another.

Ravitch writes, “When I asked why so few reading passages were drawn from classic children’s literature, the publisher explained that it was a well-accepted principle in educational publishing that everything written before 1970 was rife with racism and sexism. Only stories written after that date, he said, were likely to have acceptable language and appropriate multicultural sensitivity.”

As if. As if the 1970s were a golden age of English literature and the 19th century were not. We are all trying to be culturally sensitive, but where oh where did we get the idea that we would slam the door on our illustrious heritage to do so?

Ravitch explains, “. . . the content of today’s textbooks and tests reflect a remarkable convergence of the interest of feminists and multiculturalists on one side and the religious Right on the other. No words or illustrations may be used that might offend the former groups, and no topics can be introduced that might offend those on the other side of the ideological divide. The Left gets censorship of language usage and pictures, and the Right gets censorship of topics.”

As she puts it: “That helps to explain why so many American children now arrive in college without every having read anything by writers such as Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ralph Ellison, Joseph Conrad, Willa Cather, W.E.B. DuBois, Jack London, Edith Wharton, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, George Orwell, or Charles Dickens.”

Now you’ll notice that while those authors are all definitely dead, they are neither exclusively male nor white. But they all do cause feelings, sometimes big ones. Some of those African-American authors have the politically correct skin pigment, but they also can light some pretty warm fires under otherwise comfortable behinds.

I have been a devout fiction reader for my entire reading life. Novels in particular gave me experience of places and people I couldn’t possibly have had otherwise. In the hands of a great writer, those experiences were palpable. I’ve been to prisons, orphanages, work houses, ancient lands, survived sea storms, deaths and diseases; I’ve been trapped in torrid, but hopeless romances. I’ve ruled the land and cleaned the hearth for my ugly step-sisters. I don’t believe cultural wisdom is to be had without ranging through the widely disparate experiences of literature. I’m very sorry my sons have never read Dickens, and probably never will.

As institutions, schools are intrinsically conflict-averse, and no one rushes to defend their right to challenge students with dicey issues. This blandness, then, is not their fault so much as the tendency of Americans to be offended by difference and their persistence and luck in getting difference legally removed from their presence.

Apparently our real goal is not to be multi-cultural, but mono-cultural.

Julia Steiny is a former member of the Providence School Board; she now consults and writes for a number of education, government and private enterprises. She welcomes your questions and comments on education. She can be reached by e-mail at or c/o Providence Journal, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.