Commentary

A Tale of Two Teachers: The Politics of Personal Teaching

My sister Janet Krauss has been teaching literature and poetry to incoming freshman at Fairfield University for 37-years. She also teaches creative writing to Bridgeport high school students in Fairfield University’s Upward Bound program.

As many as 80 students are selected from public high schools with high dropout rates to participate in the Upward Bound program each year. Many of the low-income students in the program come from single-parent homes in gang-infested, drug-ridden, high-crime neighborhoods where the stress of everyday life creates formidable obstacles to academic success.

Janet agrees with me that literature should be taught to kids as life lessons they can use to overcome obstacles encountered in their daily lives. They are taught to use the creative writing process to clarify, gain insight into and cope with their personal problems.

Janet teaches her students that the simple act of writing a poem, in the words of Robert Frost, “ends in a clarification of life — not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.”

Janet’s methods necessarily require that students share, in the classroom, their personal problems and feelings in the context of controversial contemporary issues such as racism, immigration, social justice and inequality. This approach has met with great success, as Janet’s student evaluations reflect.

“There is a great sense of community in the classroom,” one of Janet’s students wrote. “She does an excellent job of providing an environment where students can speak freely and manage intellectual discussions.”

“This was the only class I ever really looked forward to,” another student wrote. “You helped me break out of my shell and I can’t thank you enough for that.”

So naturally I thought of Janet when I read an essay on teaching, recently published in The Wall Street Journal, titled “High-School English Without the Politics.”

The author of the essay, Helaine L. Smith, is an English teacher at Brearley, an exclusive all-girls private school in New York City. Smith synthesizes the central thesis of her essay in a single paragraph:

“We do not talk about the environment, or racism, or feminism, or our president’s failed policies. We talk about literature. We exist, for the 40 minutes each day that I teach English to middle- and high-school students in New York City, in an issue-free zone.”

“We will not consider political parallels to today’s world,” Smith dictates like a latter-day Miss Jean Brodie.

Ironically, among the authors that she teaches in this “issue-free zone” are George Orwell and James Baldwin, who would both have objected to Smith’s effort to excise politics from the teaching of literature.

“In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics,’” Orwell wrote in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” “All issues are political issues.”

In his essay “Why I Write,” Orwell exposed the paradox inherent in what he called political quietism, explaining that “the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

By creating an “issue-free zone,” Smith has created an artificial construct that obscures rather than enlightens.

James Baldwin, who was a friend of mine, would have been horrified at the idea of his writing being taught to school children in an “issue-free zone.” In a 1963 speech that was later published in The Saturday Review as “A Talk to Teachers,” Baldwin told a group of New York City public school teachers that it was their duty to teach students the truth about racism, social injustice and inequality.

Smith’s formulaic approach to the teaching of literature — which precludes children from discussing contemporary issues or their personal feelings about those issues — seems cold and antiseptic. How can her students be expected to understand the hardships and struggles reflected in the writings of James Baldwin without a frank discussion of contemporary issues like racism and inequality?

Smith’s “issue-free zone” does a grave disservice to her students. By banning a vibrant discussion of contemporary issues, she risks the result that injustice, inequality, hardship and struggle — which are often at the root of many great works of literature — will become, to her students, little more than abstractions.