Learning from Dr. Seuss

I have been following the controversy over the removal of some books from the catalog of Dr. Seuss by his estate. Some tried to make this a political issue, blaming one party for “cancel culture” efforts. But the decision was made by the caretakers of Seuss’s legacy who determined that his outdated and insensitive depictions of racial, ethnic, and gender differences did not serve readers. Their choice is part of a larger movement to avoid harmful stereotypes and caricatures. “’These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,’ Dr. Seuss Enterprises said in the statement. The business said the decision came after working with a panel of experts, including educators, and reviewing its catalog of titles” [NYTimes].

This is not a new issue, and Dr. Seuss’s work is not alone in facing criticism.  “Children’s publishers and literary estates are trying to walk a delicate line by preserving an author’s legacy, while recognizing and rejecting aspects of a writer’s work that are out of step with current social and cultural values” [NYTimes]. Roald Dahl was criticized for racist and anti-Semitic portrayals. Richard Scarry’s illustrated books often promoted archaic gender roles and racial stereotypes [Ibid.], and many have since been revised. The Tintin and Babar serieshave been removed from many children’s sections in libraries for their colonialist and imperialist viewpoints. Such re-evaluations may become more common as we grow our own understanding of their potential negative impact of these portrayals and of the need for readers to see themselves reflected positively in what they read.

For me this controversy raises two key issues for Language Arts teachers in public schools. The first is whether we should ban books containing offensive material or choose to teach them in context, helping readers recognize their bias and its potential impact. While I think the latter approach is valuable for older high school students, its success depends on the ability and sensitivity of teachers to manage that, a tough call. When I taught The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, my students and I spent time exploring the accusations of racism against Mark Twain, the use of the N-word and how to navigate that in reading aloud and in writing, and the relative depiction of white and black characters in the novel. I’d like to think I did a good job of facilitating that exploration, but I occasionally had one or two students of color in my class, and I feared they were made uncomfortable. For younger students, however, I am convinced that the potential negative impact of unhelpful portrayals makes them unacceptable. For younger readers I would limit those books that promote stereotypes.

For me a second question comes up about the literary canon, the literature widely considered to be the best and most worth teaching and handing down from generation to generation. What books should be included? I confess I taught mostly dead white male authors far too much of the time. That’s what our textbooks contained, and the curriculum focused on these “classics.” I supplemented where I could, when I could, but it wasn’t until later in my career that I was able to include more female authors, more authors of color, and more contemporary authors.

Dead white male authors dominate the literary canon, even today. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Why not keep some of their works that offer an opportunity to explore the big questions: What does it mean to be a human being? To live a good life? What are our obligations to each other? And so on … But then why not give some of those books up and instead add works by women and BIPOC authors? Their perspectives can widen and enrich our world views and address those questions as well, and more of our readers may then see themselves in the works they read. That approach is long overdue.

The Debate on the Canon Continues

Shayna Murphy recently posted an intriguing blog arguing that too many classics taught in today’s high schools may not “necessarily [be] the right fit for a modern-day classroom.”[1] This argument is hardly new, but she thoughtfully suggests more modern and accessible books that address some of the same issues. Murphy also suggests that we can always teach both – unlikely given today’s packed curriculum.

I enjoyed following her thought process and liked many of her choices. Why not replace Moby Dick with The Martian or The Scarlet Letter with Handmaid’s Tale? But I’m having second thoughts… based on why I believe in teaching literature in the first place.

Great books open up the world to readers, who:

  • can’t help but recognize that across time and place, people are basically still people
  • also can’t avoid the reality that the times shape the culture, and we can gain a better understanding of the human experience as it changes and evolves
  • can understand the issues they face in their lives by exploring them through the lens of a book
  • can begin to recognize the diversity of human experience instead of assuming that their own way of life is universal

“Literary study should … provide us with many complex models for understanding and responding to others and to ourselves,” said University of Connecticut professor Patrick Hogan.[2]

So I have no qualms about selecting books and asking my student readers to stretch themselves to understand. Through books they can expand their understanding of people and human nature. Some of the traditional canon excels at that. Limiting their reading to contemporary works may be easier, but it deprives them of a global view of human nature over time.

I’m a Margaret Atwood fan and read Handmaid’s Tale when it was first published. As a teacher, though, I can’t help but wonder if my students might read it on their own or at least watch the televised version. Is it valuable to ground the oppression of women in a book like The Scarlet Letter? And Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying may be a challenging read due to its rotating cast of narrators and his extremely long and complex sentences. But recognizing the impact of point of view, learning to appreciate a different approach to language and style, discovering the society of the Gothic South in the 1930s – how does the value of these compare to the relatively easy read of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which is far more sentimental and also available on video. And are we ready to ignore the role that As I Lay Dying and others on the list, like The Great Gatsby have on the novels that follow them?

I know Beowulf was tough to teach, but surely it’s another seminal, foundational work. J.R. Tolkien, whose work many of my students read avidly, called Beowulf  “’this greatest of the surviving works of ancient English poetic art,’… [and it] informed his thinking about myth and language.”[3] Don’t students benefit from learning more about how novels and other forms have evolved?

I’m all for opening up the canon. My last two years of teaching we rolled out a regular sophomore English class that included eight books, half of which were non-fiction [often neglected] and all of which were relatively contemporary. But we could do that because we had so many classic works embedded in the English classes of other years. We don’t need to make the canon a binary choice. Let’s be more inclusive as we keep some classics. Let’s help our students discover many worlds beyond their own.


[1] https://www.bookbub.com/blog/2016/09/01/books-we-should-stop-making-high-schoolers-read

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/04/educating-teenagers-emotions-through-literature/476790/

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/19/books/jrr-tolkiens-translation-of-beowulf-is-published.html