In 2008, the Toronto District School Board removed Barbara Coloroso’s book Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide from its list of recommended readings for Grade 11 history students. The TDSB’s action resulted from complaints on the part of Turkish Canadians, who objected to Coloroso’s characterization of the Armenian massacre of 1915–1918 as genocide. (This is the same “crime” that got Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk charged with “insulting Turkishness” in 2005: the charges were later dropped.) For its part, the TDSB stated that the decision to drop the book was made because of a determination that it “was a far from a scrupulous text and should not be on a History course although it might be included in a course on the social psychology of genocide because of [the author's] posited thesis that genocide is merely the extreme extension of bullying.” Responding to the TDSB’s decision, Susan Swan wrote an open letter on behalf of The Writers’ Union of Canada condemning the action. Swan’s letter read in part:
You claim your reason for banning the book is that Ms. Coloroso is not a professional historian. This feels like a thinly disguised attempt to hide the truth that you have been pressured into banning her book by a politically motivated interest group. Ms. Coloroso is a highly respected and well-established professional writer and public speaker on social justice and child raising; her books are published around the world. Her book on genocide is meticulously researched and extremely appropriate for a course such as yours on the Holocaust.
It is completely unacceptable for those responsible for educating the citizens of tomorrow to remove valuable titles every time an interest group brings forth a complaint. If so, your library shelves would be bare indeed.
The TDSB eventually reversed its decision and restored the book to its recommended reading list. This reversal, however, resulted in Turkish Canadians protesting to the provincial government and the Ontario Ministry of Education.
From Extraordinary Evil:
In a 1999 research project conducted by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, subjects were asked to view a seventy-five-second video titled Gorilla in Our Midst: Sustained Inattentional Blindness for Dynamic Events. On the video, two teams – one dressed in white, one dressed in black – passed two basketballs around. The subjects were to count the number of passes between players wearing the same color. About forty-five seconds into the video a woman wearing a gorilla suit walks through the group of players, stops briefly to pound her chest, and then continues walking out of the video frame – spending a total of nine seconds on the screen. Subjects who were counting the passes were then asked if they had seen the gorilla. Only 36 percent reported that they had. The other 64 percent experienced what is known as “inattentional blindness,” the inability to detect unexpected objects to which we aren’t paying attention.
As Samantha Power notes, acts of war, and even just the rhetoric of war, can have the effect of masking genocide. In this sense, the “eliminationist campaigns” are the unexpected objects, the “gorilla in our midst” to which “outsiders” aren’t paying attention.
Those who instigate and perpetrate the eliminationist campaigns actually use war as a tool of genocide. Wartime conditions heighten the threat level and create a polarized world view in which the “enemy” is objectified and dehumanized; those targeted for extermination are thus easily subsumed into the category of enemy and measures are allowed that would not be tolerated in peacetime. As well, the perpetrators are provided with the necessary cover to carry out their ugly deeds. Genocide is not the cause or the consequence of war.
In 1995, the school board in Lanark County, Ontario, denied approval of Stephen King’s collection of four novellas, Different Seasons, on the basis of the book’s sexual content and language. The book had been recommended by teachers for use with senior students at Carleton Place High School. One of the board members who was involved in making the decision admitted not having read the book. In Stephen King from A to Z: An Encyclopedia of His Life and Work, George W. Beahm quotes the author’s response to the suppression of his book by the Lanark County School Board: “I know the attitude and the mindset. These people love to be despots in their own little territory … Book banning is never about what’s pornographic or what’s not. It’s always about who’s got the power to … try and impose their view of the way the world should be on the minds of the young ones in their charge.”
From “Apt Pupil” by Stephen King:
“Do you suppose, I ask myself, that the very atrocities in which Dussander took part formed the basis of some attraction between them? That’s an unholy idea, I tell myself. The things that happened in those camps still have power enough to make the stomach flutter with nausea. I feel that way myself, although the only close relative I ever had in the camps was my grandfather, and he died when I was three. But maybe there is something about what the Germans did that exercises a deadly fascination over us – something that opens the catacombs of the imagination. Maybe part of our dread and horror comes from a secret knowledge that under the right – or wrong – set of circumstances, we ourselves would be willing to build such places and staff them. Black serendipity. Maybe we know that under the right set of circumstances the things that live in the catacombs would be glad to crawl out. And what do you think they would look like? Like mad Fuehrers with forelocks and shoe-polish moustaches, heil-ing all over the place? Like red devils, or demons, or the dragon that floats on its stinking reptile wings?”
“I don’t know,” Richler said.
“I think most of them would look like ordinary accountants,” Weiskopf said. “Little mind-men with graphs and flow-charts and electronic calculators, all ready to start maximizing the kill ratios so that next time they could perhaps kill twenty or thirty million instead of only six. And some of them might look like Todd Bowden.”
“You’re damn near as creepy as he is,” Richler said.
Weiskopf nodded. “It’s a creepy subject. Finding those dead men and animals in Dussander’s cellar … that was creepy, nu? Have you ever thought that maybe this boy began with a simple interest in the camps? An interest not much different from the interests of boys who collect coins or stamps or who like to read about Wild West desperados? And that he went to Dussander to get his information straight from the horse’s head?”
“Mouth,” Richler said automatically. “Man, at this point I could believe anything.”
“Maybe,” Weiskopf muttered. It was almost lost in the roar of another ten-wheeler passing them. BUDWEISER was printed on the side in letters six feet tall. What an amazing country, Weiskopf thought, and lit a fresh cigarette. They don’t understand how we can live surrounded by half-mad Arabs, but if I lived here for two years I would have a nervous breakdown. “Maybe. And maybe it isn’t possible to stand close to murder piled on murder and not be touched by it.”
An article in yesterday’s Globe and Mail advocated moving away from the practice of assigning classes of schoolchildren a single book to study and toward allowing students to exercise more choice in their reading material for school:
Reading for pleasure – and not because there’s an essay due tomorrow – has been linked to scholastic achievement. Some education researchers have argued that means letting students – particularly in middle school and especially boys – freely choose what pages they want to turn.
“There’s this belief that if you are going to go to a college you have to read certain things,” says Gay Ivey, a professor of reading education at James Madison University in Virginia. “When you think about the kinds of things that very successful, educated, productive people read in their adult lives, they aren’t breaking down the doors of Barnes & Noble to get a copy of The Scarlet Letter.”
True enough. They also aren’t breaking down the doors of Barnes & Noble to get their hands on an algebra textbook, but this doesn’t seem to deter educators from assigning math problems to students. This is where the argument that students should be allowed to choose what they read in school falls flat: it assumes that English literature – unlike, say, math or chemistry – is a subject that requires no familiarity with its background or history. The history of the English novel stretches back to the 18th century, to Defoe and Richardson and Fielding. The history of the novel stretches back even further, to Cervantes and Lady Murasaki. Beyond that, modern English literature can’t be understood without a firm grounding in the classics: in Dante and Homer and the Bible.
Of course, teachers of English literature in middle school classrooms won’t want to hear this, precisely because their students are steeped in the ephemera of modernity – in the X-Box and World of Warcraft and text messaging. Teaching students about the past, and having them immerse themselves in worlds that may seem foreign to them, requires work: it requires teachers to actually teach.
“Ours is the first age in history which has asked the child what he would tolerate learning,” wrote Flannery O’Connor in an essay titled “Total Effect and the Eighth Grade.” That essay was first published in the Georgia Bulletin on March 21, 1963. It is not hard to imagine O’Connor’s response, 47 years later, upon reading the following in The Globe and Mail:
Pam Allyn, a literary expert and the author of What to Read When who runs an organization that educates teachers, agrees that the time has come to abandon the class novel – leaving it to selected high school English classes designed to teach the classics. While some teachers can be effective with the approach, she says that often students tell themselves: “I have to get through this book. I’ve got to learn to understand it the way my teacher wants me to.” That can be boring for good readers, she says, and “devastating” for struggling students.
It’s not hard to imagine how O’Connor – an incisive and uncompromising social critic – would have responded to such a statement, because her likely response is contained in her 1963 essay:
In other ages the attention of children was held by Homer and Virgil, among others, but, by the reverse evolutionary process, that is no longer possible; our children are too stupid now to enter into the past imaginatively. No one asks the student if algebra pleases him or if he finds it satisfactory that some French verbs are irregular, but if he prefers Hersey to Hawthorne, his taste must prevail.
Of course, finding any modern students who even know who John Hersey is, let alone have read any of his books, would be impossible. The modern-day equivalent is likely Stephenie Meyer or the Gossip Girl novels, which should illustrate just how far “the reverse evolutionary process” has regressed us as a culture.
And there are no doubt all sorts of educational theorists (and others) who will work themselves into fits of self-righteous lather over O’Connor’s assessment of children “too stupid now to enter into the past imaginatively,” but this seems to me to be self-evident. The Globe article underscores this when it states that students assigned To Kill a Mockingbird or Wuthering Heights “were turning the pages not with anticipation but with groans.” Not that this is the students’ fault – or, at least, not entirely. It is the responsibility of teachers to convince their students that history – even the history of English literature – did not begin on the day those students were born. It is the teacher’s responsibility to provide students with the tools necessary “to enter the past imaginatively.”
This is important because culture, like anything, does not exist in a vacuum. Students can’t understand where we are today if they remain ignorant of where we’ve been. Teaching the classics is not merely a sop to parents who believe that “what makes a more educated person is if they can quote Hamlet,” in the words of one educator quoted in the Globe article. Rather, it provides essential background for understanding how our society has evolved and what has brought us to our current historical moment. Students may find such inquiry boring (although a good teacher should be able to render it infinitely less so), but that is not material. The purpose of education is to foster knowledge, understanding, and character, not to reinforce attitudes that students already hold.
O’Connor has the last word on pretty much everything, so it is appropriate to give her the last word here:
The high-school English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnishes the student a guided opportunity, though the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present. He will teach literature, not social studies or little lessons in democracy or the culture of many lands.
And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.