No, a Massachusetts school has NOT banned Homer's Odyssey

Busting the myth of the classics cancel mob

“Even Homer Gets Mobbed,” the headline blared. “A Massachusetts school has banned ‘The Odyssey.’”

As an author releasing an Iliad-based story in online installments, this headline had me expecting a mob of Homer haters to march their cancel-culture torches down my driveway at any moment. Until I actually read the article.

The December 27th Wall Street Journal opinion piece by children's book reviewer Meghan Cox Gurdon* begins:

A sustained effort is under way to deny children access to literature. Under the slogan #DisruptTexts, critical-theory ideologues, schoolteachers and Twitter agitators are purging and propagandizing against classic texts—everything from Homer to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Dr. Seuss.

Oh no, they’re coming for Dr. Seuss. Run, Fox in Socks, run!*

But seriously, could you imagine if this were at all true? If cruel-hearted schoolteachers actually were denying access to the musty shelves of classic literature that children love so much? With sustained effort! And propaganda! And a literal purge! And a hashtag!

Gurdon’s article ties these alleged book-purging ideologues to YA author Padma Venkatraman, casting her as a classics-hating monster:

Their ethos holds that children shouldn’t have to read stories written in anything other than the present-day vernacular—especially those “in which racism, sexism, ableism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hate are the norm,” as young-adult novelist Padma Venkatraman writes in School Library Journal.

I know Padma Venkatraman. I’ve known Padma for years. And I know for a fact that she doesn’t think children and teens should only read “present-day vernacular” books, whatever those are. Padma’s words in their full original context are inarguably true:

Powerful books can transport us to different places and times and also transplant us, temporarily, into a character’s body. Protagonists haunt us, move us, and sometimes spur us to act by sowing empathy and respect for diversity.

Conversely, exposing young people to stories in which racism, sexism, ableism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hate are the norm may sow seeds of bias that can grow into indifference or prejudice.

Racism in classics can’t be negated merely by alerting young readers to its presence. Unless we have the time, energy, attention, expertise, and ability to foster nuanced conversations in which even the shyest readers feel empowered to engage if they choose, we may hurt, not help. Pressuring readers of color to speak up also removes free choice and can be harmful.

This is the kind, caring, helpful, knowledgeable Padma Venkatraman I know.

Padma’s full quotation advocates for safe and nurturing classrooms staffed by teachers with the time, energy, attention, expertise, and ability to maximize benefits while minimizing harms, instead of merely suggesting that students scan past all the N-words, or forcing students of color to serve as de facto teaching assistants to their white classmates on matters of race.

But regardless of the selective, out-of-context, fragmented quotations cited by Gurdon, does Padma Venkatraman anywhere advocate banning classics and erasing the past?

No, she explicitly does not:

I’m not advocating we ban classics. Or erase the past. Classics are undoubtedly examples of excellent writing, or they wouldn’t have survived the test of time. I’m just suggesting we study classics in social studies classrooms, where inherent ideas of inequity are exposed and examined; where Huckleberry Finn may be viewed as an example of literature that showcases the white lens. Delay the study of classics until readers are mature enough to question, debate, and defy subtle assertions. Dissect classics in college by setting aside time to delve into both literary merits and problematic assumptions.

Padma Venkatraman wants to engage students in a developmentally appropriate cross-curricular study that develops critical thinking skills, raises social awareness, and fosters an appreciation for well-crafted literary works while also providing a basis for understanding the history and culture of the times in which these texts were written.

So much for her being an anti-intellectual bent on canceling the classics.

On the other hand, Gurdon’s exemplar of a “critical-theory ideologue schoolteacher” is Seattle educator Evin Shinn, who stated in a 2018 tweet that he’d rather die than teach The Scarlet Letter. Gurdon doesn’t delve into exactly why Shinn might feel this way about Nathanial Hawthorne’s infamous novel about slut-shaming Puritans, but the WSJ article prompted this clarification from Shinn himself:

I just don’t like The Scarlet Letter. I also think you can get the same content from Hawthorne’s short stories quickly versus forcing kids to slog through a text that they will just Sparknotes for six weeks anyway.

The writing aspects Hawthorne excels at in Scarlet Letter also exist in his shorter works, and in the works of other authors, including many who are publishing modern works tailored to a 21st Century society that Hawthorne could only have imagined. If the goal is for students to improve their writing craft and enhance their literary appreciation, shouldn’t teachers assign whatever texts most effectively serve those purposes?

It’s also important to note here that Shinn is not a teacher-bot, he is a person who has a particular taste in reading material, as do we all. Language Arts teachers are entitled to hold strong personal opinions on the texts that they teach. Sometimes their passions might even show up in a tweet.

In early December, YA author Jessica Cluess reacted to one such tweet with a violently aggressive tirade berating a prominent educator of color for daring to posit that some works created before the Civil Rights Era might reflect the prevailing attitudes of their times. The response was a brutal disavowal from Twitter users, an eventual apology from Cluess, and the loss of her agency representation.

A helpful guide for authors: it’s generally seen as unprofessional when you use your platform to launch a public attack on teachers, reviewers, readers, booksellers, librarians, agents, or editors.

Separately in June, an educator tweeted a joke about Odysseus, which prompted another educator to respond that she had proudly advocated for the Odyssey to be removed from her grade-level curriculum, as she is entitled to do for any number of reasons, especially during a school year turned upside-down by the coronavirus pandemic and remote learning models.

These cherry-picked tweets formed the building blocks from which Gurdon built an opinion piece premised upon Lawrence High School having “banned” Homer’s Odyssey.

Except that the English teacher in question later asserted that there had been never been any such ban in policy or in practice:

To be clear: I am 100% against the banning of any books, and my school did not ban any texts, to my knowledge. That is an assumption the author of the article made, and it is factually incorrect. It was simply our 9th grade ELA team’s decision last year to reimagine many of the units in our curriculum to best meet the needs of our students. One of the units we decided not to use moving forward included Homer’s Odyssey. It was not a blanket school- or district-wide decision and any teacher, including myself, would still be more than welcome to teach from the text. As you can imagine, this year almost all of our curriculum needed to be reshaped even after the initial planning we did in May once we realized virtual learning would continue. But what I most strongly want to reiterate is that no books were or will be banned from my school or classroom.

Nuff said. Students can still read the Odyssey, should still read the Odyssey, and will likely still encounter the Odyssey at some point in their academic journeys. But there is no reason to jam any specific book into the curriculum of a specific grade level where it’s not the best possible fit.

Refining the curriculum is an ongoing part of every teacher’s practice, including the necessary reevaluation of old standards. This teacher, her colleagues, and their administrators have decades of collective experience in meeting the needs of their students. They are not ideologues advancing some nefarious plot to ban the books of old white men, but dedicated professionals invested in the future success of their community.

Gurdon wasn’t in the room when these well-qualified educators made their decisions. She hadn’t gotten to know the students and their families as these teachers have. From outside the community, she is in no position to look over a teacher’s shoulder and second-guess her motives based on a single tweet.

And yet, as of this writing, the online version of Gurdon’s WSJ opinion piece still carries a headline falsely asserting that Lawrence High has banned Homer’s Odyssey. Readers are being misled, at best, or tricked, at worst, into believing that some organized group of anti-intellectuals is scoring victories in a “sustained effort” to “purge” classics from the classroom to the detriment of American schoolchildren.

The result: more grist for the culture wars outrage machine, more clicks for the WSJ website and its social media ecosystem, more sales for the makers of blood pressure medication, and very much more online hatred directed at the Disrupt Texts community, whose #DisruptTexts hashtag is disparaged throughout Gurdon’s article.

Disrupt Texts is a collaboration by four educators of color with over 65 years of collective teaching experience: Tricia EbarviaLorena GermánDr. Kim Parker, and Julia Torres. Together they blog, host online chat sessions, and provide their colleagues with teaching and learning guides. Disrupt Texts advises teachers to reflect upon the unavoidable biases they may be bringing to the classroom, to center traditionally marginalized voices, to approach texts with a critical literacy lens*, and to collaborate with fellow educators on ways to create more inclusive teaching practices. Or more simply, they are teachers helping teachers to better meet their students’ needs.

Nowhere on their site does Disrupt Texts call for banning books. In fact, in the wake of Gurdon’s WSJ article, Disrupt Texts explicitly clarified their mission statement:

We do not believe in censorship and have never supported banning books. To claim otherwise is outright false. It is a mischaracterization of our work made to more easily attack us, serve an agenda, and discredit the need for antiracist education. Teachers and schools determine curriculum for any number of reasons, and in fact, we know that censorship and banning efforts disproportionately hurts LGBTQIA+ authors and BIPoC authors are already underrepresented in the publishing industry.

In the end, Gurdon’s garbage article is just one last gut-punch from a year of endless gut-punches, but on the plus side, it’s pointed me toward a hashtag to follow, an educational resource to learn from, and a renewed sense of purpose for my own writing.

Those who insist in believing that classics cancel culture is a real thing must ask themselves whose voices got canceled first, by whom, and exactly how long ago. Why do we have so few surviving fragments by Lesbian poetess Sapho? Why do we celebrate Hesiod’s Theogony while his Catalogue of Women was hard-canceled back in ancient times? Why are you advocating so hard for the Iliad and Odyssey, but not raising a finger to restore the rich diversity of stories that once bridged the gap in the Epic Cycle between them?

In 2021, I look forward to interacting with teachers who have removed Homer from their curriculum and asking what support they would need to bring the rage of Achilles and journeys of Odysseus back into their classrooms, perhaps paired with the equally ancient Trojan War traditions of Amazon Queen Penthesilea and Ethiopian Warlord Memnon.

I look forward to giving Homer the #DisruptTexts treatment by providing interpretation and context that teachers can use as part of the more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum that our students deserve.

The odyssey continues. Keep reading!

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A footnote on Meghan Cox Gurdon:

  • In the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Gurdon more typically provides children’s book reviews. She displays a passion for childhood literacy that I respect and admire. She is certainly entitled to her opinions on pedagogical theory and has an absolute right to stain the WSJ Opinion Page with as much uninformed outrage as she can muster. However, I believe Gurdon owes contrite apologies to each author and educator she has unjustly smeared as a child-harming book-banner. The hurtful wave of hatred and vitriol that poured from Gurdon’s article into online spaces and email inboxes during the holiday season was entirely unconscionable.

A footnote on Dr. Seuss:

  • Nobody’s perfect, not even Theodor Seuss Geisel. All of us are products of the times we live through and the cultures we are raised in. Dr. Seuss has been cited for his use of racial stereotypes, for the dearth of non-white characters in his books, and for works that evoke a minstrel show aesthetic. These examples give rise to a call, not for schools to ban The Cat in the Hat, but for teachers to be better aware of the strengths and limitations of even the most beloved and innocuous-seeming books in their classroom arsenal.

A footnote on the Critical Literacy Lens:

  • The third Core Principle of Disrupt Texts is to approach texts with a critical literacy lens. The most common rebuttal I’ve encountered online is usually some variant of, “Critical literacy is code for Race Critical Theory, and that’s somehow bad!” This is a massive rabbit hole outside the scope of this article that I have no interest in diving into. The important thing is that the Disrupt Texts educators identified valid problems with the traditional “received canon” of literature, came up with an alternative approach that worked better for their teaching practices, and shared that approach with other educators who might also find it useful. They’re not saying their approach should be imposed on all schools as the only way to teach. They’re not saying it’s the best possible approach for all teachers, all classes, and all schools. They’re just presenting it as a tool that teachers should be aware of, and which schools can choose to consider or not according to the unique needs of their own particular communities.