What to Teach, What to Read

Preface to a Symposium

  In January of this year several writers sent our way a Wall Street Journal opinion piece (“Shakespeare Wasn’t Woke”) by a children’s book critic named Meghan Cox Gurdon. These friends suggested that we consider building a modest symposium around the issues raised, and we thought this was a good idea. When the commissioned pieces came in, we were not at all surprised, or disappointed, to see that they came at the relevant issues in divergent ways.
  The Gurdon piece argues that people associated with a movement that calls itself #DisruptTexts are “using a good idea—that kids ought to have access to books with protagonists of different races and ethnic backgrounds—to promote a pernicious idea: that children are harmed if they encounter classic literature that doesn’t conform to contemporary sensibilities about race, gender and sexuality.” Thus, “some English teachers in American schools oppose the teaching of Shakespeare lest students be hurt by the violence, misogyny and racism in his plays.”
  Gurdon contends that #DisruptTexts is a growing movement with considerable influence in secondary school circles especially. It has, she says, “a column on the website of the National Council of Teachers of English,” and in November of 2020, “Penguin Random House released eight #DisruptTexts study guides for teachers.” The rationale informing the movement includes the contention that “children should see themselves (with ‘the self’ defined according to narrow identity categories) mirrored in the literature,” that they need stories “written in present day vernacular, that are relevant to their lives,” and that “teaching classic texts that fall afoul of contemporary standards is perpetuating oppression.”
  The response pieces we’ve assembled for this symposium suggest that this is not a debate apt to be resolved any time soon.

— The Editors