By Ryan Tibbens
For approximately the last 12 years, my English 11 and AP English Language and Composition classes have included a heavy focus on antiracism and race in American culture. We read short, nonfiction biology, anthropology, sociology, psychology, history, and personal narrative articles about racism. We discussed the topics, the conflicts, their cause, and their possible solutions -- all in great detail. We wrote essays that aligned to state and College Board standards while keeping the focus on biases, prejudice, and injustice in our lives, our country, and our world. We organized all these texts, ideas, discussions, and essays within units defined by longer works of cultural and historical significance -- The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
But this year, things will be different. We will still read a few of those shorter articles, but new reading guidelines issued by Loudoun County Public Schools make those longer texts, and -- more directly, the discussion and analysis of them -- highly dangerous, perhaps impossible. While teachers can still assign those texts, we can not read aloud, play recordings, or even censor the books to allow for whole class or small group discussion. Essentially, students can read the books and discuss the broader concepts, but they can not connect specific language from the texts to their assertions, and teachers can not lead a discussion of specific passages. Good literary and text-based discussion requires specific, concrete connections to the text, so a prohibition on quoting a book makes it unusable. One part of the new county reading guidelines makes this clear (emphasis is original): "DO NOT use audio books or read passages with sensitive language or racial slurs aloud, nor should students read these passages aloud. Teachers may not read the passage and omit the offensive word or supply a substitute word. Language spoken aloud that is oppressive causes violence and trauma to students and provides tacit permission for students to use these terms outside the classroom."
As a result, my classes will no longer be reading the works of Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, or Mark Twain. In fact, despite how strongly I feel about promoting antiracism alongside strong literacy, rhetoric, and critical thinking skills, the antiracism unit will be significantly reduced this year because there are very few high quality, antiracist texts that are appropriate for AP-level classes that also do not include racial slurs.
Instead, this year, students will read The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. This book raises questions about the steps we, as adults and educators, are taking to protect students from potential discomfort and offense. The authors will raise concerns about the county's use of the words "violence" and "trauma" in the guidelines. I used this book as part of a "choice" unit last year, and students gave overwhelmingly positive responses. Many acknowledged that it was not a particularly "entertaining" book and that they would not have chosen it outside of class, but they nearly unanimously agreed that the book is important, that its ideas are worthy of consideration, and that they were glad to have encountered these ideas before going to college. The book itself has been a lightning rod -- people either love its criticism of modern "woke" and "PC" culture or hate that same criticism, deeming it "regressive" and worse. For those interested in an overview of the concepts, Lukianoff and Haidt originally published their concepts and claims as an article in The Atlantic back in 2015. The popularity (and controversy) of this article led to the full length book that students will be reading.
This year, we will examine Lukianoff and Haidt's book through a slightly different lens. First, students will have to decide how much they agree and disagree with their claims. Then they'll have to decide how important content warnings, censorship, and students' cognitive "safety" are to them. Finally, they'll decide what they think public school systems and universities should do when addressing books, speeches, and other communications that include sensitive language or that contain potentially offensive ideas. There is no "right" or "wrong" answer. Students will be free to discuss, argue, and write as they see fit. The only limitations are that their work must be appropriate for an AP or college level classroom, that it must be honest, and that it must be well supported using evidence from class texts and that they find on their own.
In a time when mainstream American culture seems to care about racism, justice, and free speech more than ever, students will have to decide -- Can we overcome racism while removing Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, and others from the classroom?
Please direct all questions and comments to the author of this article and/or your teacher.
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