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 But the decision was made by the caretakers of Seuss’s legacy who determined that his outdated and insensitive depictions of racial, ethnic, and gender differences did not serve readers.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 Yin and Yang of Reading and Knowledge Acquisition

A November 25 New York Times article by Daniel Willingham, “How to Get Your Mind to Read,” raises important questions for educators, parents, and learners. Because reading does not happen in a vacuum, true comprehension requires more than accurate decoding. Willingham writes:

Current education practices show that reading comprehension is misunderstood. It’s treated like a general skill that can be applied with equal success to all texts. Rather, comprehension is intimately intertwined with knowledge. That suggests three significant changes in schooling.

Full understanding of the text requires background knowledge and context. If you know nothing about the game of soccer, for instance, an article about soccer will inevitably be more opaque.

Willingham prescribes three changes:

  1. Reverse the trend of spending more time on literacy instruction and less on knowledge acquisition; at least use high-information texts.
  2. For accountability, use assessments that match the kind of background knowledge for the particular student population.
  3. Finally, “the systematic building of knowledge must be a priority in curriculum design.”

As a retired reading consultant whose career veered off into constructivist learning, I find myself struggling with Willingham’s vision even as it makes sense to me. I have come to believe that content and information can be acquired when there’s a purpose for knowing them, but that skills trump content. The whole thrust of problem-based learning requires a tactical approach to locating and using knowledge based on critical thinking skills.

Yet I agree that, even though I’m a proficient and prolific reader, I struggle with materials for which I have very limited background information. Reading about them requires delving beyond the immediate text. If I struggle, what must it be like for inexperienced readers?

Perhaps the best answer is a recognition that we needn’t make an either-or choice. I choose to believe that knowledge acquisition can occur when learners have a genuine need for that knowledge and the skills to locate and use it. But educators should support emerging readers by helping them build a broader knowledge base to improve their deep comprehension. Can’t we come at these issues from both directions for a win-win?