Sunday, February 8, 2015

A post about literature, teaching, religion, frustration, and philosophical parenting differences

I put a lot of time, effort and energy into selecting books for my cottage school students.  They have to be classics, first of all.  I check Sonlight, a homeschooling curriculum to see if it uses these texts.  I check Common Sense Media to see what it says.  I run it by the directors of the cottage school.

Originally, I had suggested Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck for my freshmen/sophomore English class.  What would an American Literature class be if it didn't include Steinbeck, the Nobel Prize Winner in Literature in 1962?  One of the directors said she would prefer The Grapes of Wrath, which was fine by me.

I read it and planned lessons around it.  Of all the books I've taught in the cottage school these two years, this is one of the most Jesus-y ones.  The whole book is strewn with biblical allusions and demands that readers consider how Jesus treated the poor, the destitute, the uneducated, the "unsavories" and, therefore, how we should treat these people.  All of my journaling questions are asking students to consider what Steinbeck is suggesting about how society treats these people.  I never, ever in a zillion years thought parents would find it problematic because it is very much Christian in terms of content.

But a couple did and do have problems with the book, and they complained, asking if I could select an alternative book for their kids.

I have many and mixed feelings about this.

On one hand, it makes me angry.  We posted this year's reading list in May 2014, so parents have had months and months to research, read, investigate.  I suspect some of their anger is not with me or the directors but with themselves for not being as diligent as they want to be.  It also makes me angry because I have already done all the planning, and asking me to select another book when I've already begun teaching The Grapes of Wrath is asking me to do more work without any warning, without any extra pay, and honestly, without any guarantee that they wouldn't take issue with another book, another classic, I selected.

I am also frustrated because while I respect the parents' choice on what their children read, it makes it difficult for me to teach a novel if 2 out of 5 students aren't reading the book.  I feel I am doing a disservice to the students who are reading the book if I tiptoe around topics because some parents object to the book.

(I am not, however, nor would I, nor did I ever intend to discuss masturbation in class, which one parent thought I might do. Apparently, there is a reference to masturbation in the novel, which I don't even remember.)

I am also sad because I work really, really hard to make my classes challenging, appealing and about finding morals, meaning, and God within secular texts.  Even if the parents are unhappy with the book and not me personally because I am teaching the book it makes me feel like they are unhappy with me.

On the other hand, I can understand the parents' dilemma.  I personally think that by the time a kid is in high school, parents should be allowing them certain freedoms, and one of the biggest and safest, in my opinion, is the freedom to read widely.  However, if the parent is not doing this, then reading The Grapes of Wrath probably does feel like sending their kids into a den of iniquity.  There is profanity, there are allusions to sexuality, there is violence.

I shelter my own children so I get it. We do not watch television news of any kind, but we do get the newspaper.  I am ok with my children reading about world events, many of which are cruel and scary, but I am not okay with the sensationalized spin and constant repetition that televised news media puts on the cruel and scary.

Even though I am frustrated, I am trying to look at this situation as a learning experience for me.  I am finding that there are groups of parents who claim they want their children to read classics but haven't read the classics themselves and really have a much narrower view of what constitutes a classic than I do (and what the College Board does and what virtually any university in the country has).

In order for a book to be a classic, it has to be many things.  It has to be extremely authentic to the time-frame about which it is written and be chock full of themes and concerns that can resonate with readers forever.  In order for something to resonate it is often controversial.  There has to be something there with which people can relate, can grapple.

There is a segment of homeschooling families who hold very tightly to this idea from Phillipians 4:8:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

They do not want their children reading content that is unGodly.  I have heard people say they only want their children to read things that "strengthen the heart, mind and soul toward Spiritual thinking."

At its essence, I do not disagree with them.  I, too, want my children to read things that strengthen their hearts and minds, feeds their souls, and help them to be the kind of loving people who live compassionately with the Golden Rule guiding them.

But I can think of few things that could strengthen a person's heart, mind and soul toward spiritual thinking than a novel that struggles in its entirety, although indirectly through symbolism and theme, with what Jesus would make of the 1930s Depression and treatment of Okies and others who traveled to California seeking work, many of whom starved to death due to economic and environmental forces beyond their control.

If I try to emulate a Jesus who ate with tax-collectors and forgave prostitutes, who was revolutionary in his thinking that the poor and unsavory have dignity and value, then I feel there is much that is honorable, commendable and excellent in reading classics like The Grapes of Wrath.

Even if it has profanity or sexual reference or violence.  The novel, whether we find it distasteful, is true.  People are profane, are sexual, are violent.  It is a fact of living in this world.

It is funny that this debate hasn't anything to do with Jesus or God but in how widely or narrowly people read Jesus/God and the Bible.

Finally, and perhaps the cherry on top of this whole cake, is that in this particular case it has resulted in one group of people questioning how good or bad of Christians other groups of people are because of their book selections.

Now this doesn't bother me personally.  I was raised Catholic and consider myself a Catholic-in-recovery even though I attend and participate in a Christian church.  I don't really care if someone thinks I'm not a certain kind of Christian because I've never claimed to be a certain kind of Christian.
But it bothers me that people I like and trust who try to be good, kind thoughtful Christians are getting their feelings hurt by other Christians who seem to be suggesting that selecting these type of readings makes one a crappy Christian.  It seems rather un-Christ-like to me.

As I mull over and muddle through all this, I am constantly wondering, "What would Jesus think of all this rigamarole and what would he think of The Grapes of Wrath?"

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