Dahl, Dickens, and DeSantis
Goldstone is the author of the forthcoming "Not White Enough: The Long Shameful Road to Japanese American Internment."
Although most of the recent news coverage of proxy war has been focused on United States’ military aid to Ukraine, there is another proxy war being fought a good deal closer to home, in America’s public schools. Both the left and the right are joined in a ferocious battle to use students to control the nation’s future.
On the left, the latest skirmish is over beloved children’s writer Roald Dahl and his penchant for using once acceptable but now pejorative terms such as “fat” to describe characters in his books. To critics, these would be intolerable even if they were innocent and unintentional transgressions, but Dahl’s sins are compounded because he was a genuinely unpleasant fellow. He was a serial adulterer whose one-time wife, actress Patricia Neal called him “Roald the Rotten,” and so openly anti-Semitic that he once observed that Adolph Hitler “didn’t just pick on Jews for no reason.” And so, “fat” became “enormous” and witches who were “bald under their wigs” acquired a disclaimer: “There are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.”
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Although not yet receiving the same political red pencil, Charles Dickens must certainly be in the crosshairs of the language police. Dickens was also, to say the least, less than perfect. He once suggested that exterminating people from India might not be such a bad idea and he was equally offensive to Africans and, yes, Americans. Then of course, there is Fagin, the most caricaturish Jew since Shylock—although we will let Shakespeare go for the moment. Fagin was described as a “loathsome reptile” with “fangs such as should have been a dog’s or rat’s.” Soon, we can expect additions, perhaps, “but reptiles are nice too” and “fangs are just long teeth.”
Where the left is censoring language, however, the right is censoring history.
Led by governors Ron DeSantis of Florida and Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, conservatives are attempting to have only a bleached version of the nation’s first two centuries taught in the schools. In Florida, DeSantis’s education board first banned an AP American history course because the College Board included topics with “instruction that suggests some are privileged or oppressed based on their race or skin color.” In case that was not conservative enough, DeSantis then threatened to ban AP classes entirely, certain to thrill parents of Florida’s best high school students who aspire to have their children attend elite colleges.
Youngkin, to “empower parents,” directed schools to forbid the teaching of any material that was “inherently divisive,” a description that surely includes the unspoken clause “to white heterosexuals.” At best, the phrase is highly subjective and would almost surely create school curricula very similar to Florida’s.
For the far right, then, children should be taught that the story of America is one of a largely unbroken timeline of virtue, a nation in which anyone who worked hard, followed the rules, and went regularly to religious services, preferably Christian or maybe even Jewish, had an equal chance to succeed and partake of American exceptionalism. There were some blips to be sure—slavery being the most inconvenient—but these, students will learn, were vestiges of the past that a heroic nation soon cast off.
(Of course, to the far left, the story of America is one of a largely unbroken timeline of intolerance, greed, and repression of anyone not white and Christian. In this view, slavery was not the exception, but merely one example among many in which white America repressed and brutalized anyone not like themselves and where, for non-white or other nonconforming groups, no amount of hard work could crack the barricades of bigotry.)
That both of these are, at best, half-truths, bother proponents not one whit. It is uncertain whether, beyond fringe groups on either side, proponents even believe these one-sided narratives. But history and literature have ceased to be subjects considered vital to a rounded education and tools for children to develop into good and thoughtful citizens. They are now weapons of war, designed to appeal to core supporters and thus gain power and influence, and, with any luck, control of the government.
With requisite righteous indignation, each accuses the other of indoctrinating children rather than educating them while, in fact, they are both guilty of it. And the essence of indoctrination is simplicity—one does not have to weigh points of view or consider alternatives because there is only one point of view and no alternatives. And so, both sides, in their own way, are trying to remove complexity from school curricula.
But in the world these children will eventually enter, simplicity will inevitably give way to complexity, both in their personal lives and in the society in which they will be forced to make their way. And that is as it should be because dealing with the complex is the essence of critical thinking and critical thinking is a prerequisite for both personal achievement and for maintaining America’s position in the world.
Students in middle and high schools should be wrestling with whether art can be appreciated separate from the artist or if a nation with an imperfect founding and a checkered history can still be thought to be true to its ideals. They should be hashing out whether Americans should pretend Jim Crow did not persist in the South for decades after slavery was abolished or that the United States did not break virtually every treaty it ever made with Native American tribes. And how can younger children learn of the power of language to wound if they are not taught it by example in schools or their homes?
Yes, it may be a challenge for educators to attempt to find the correct manner to assign the works of Dahl, Dickens, and other writers considered “classic,” as it is a challenge to find the correct manner to teach about slavery, Jim Crow, anti-Asian bigotry, and the destruction of Native American cultures. In elementary schools, the challenges are even greater. But, regardless of their flaws, Roald Dahl and Charles Dickens were brilliant artists and, regardless of the nation’s stunning achievements, America’s history contains horrific, embarrassing episodes. How can we teach children to learn to think for themselves if adults with a political agenda are doing their thinking for them?