From Confederate memorials to “problematic” literature in schools, communities across the country are wrestling with how to acknowledge the past and its imperfections without offending the sensibilities of modern schoolchildren and their teachers, with most solutions employing one of the three R’s: remove, rename, revise.
But some educators are encouraging another way. They are engaging with children in an exploration of values and culture to better understand the mores of the past and the present.
“Why is Ma so scared of Native Americans? Where does prejudice come from in pioneers? What prejudices do we still have today?” Melissa Scholes Young, a professorial lecturer at American University, offers as questions to explore the cultural landscape and significance of the “Little House on the Prairie” series of children’s books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
The Association for Library Service to Children last month voted unanimously to remove Wilder’s name from its children’s book award because the “Little House” series “includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values.”
The association said specifically that her writing displays “anti-Native and anti-Black sentiments,” and it renamed the award as the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.
Wilder, who won the group’s first award in 1954, is still read widely, but her complex legacy is “not universally embraced,” the association said. Wilder was born in 1867 and died in 1957 at age 90.
Ms. Scholes Young said she often pairs classic literature with work from more modern authors as a way to compare and contrast how cultural issues are reflected in the stories. Not every parent has the wisdom and training professors possess, she said, but that shouldn’t stop parents from pursuing this angle.
“It’s perfectly fine as a parent to say, ‘Sometimes I don’t know. … Let’s look for it together,’” she said. “It’s not hard to pair a historical text with almost anything happening in our world today.”
The tack is supported by Deborah Gilboa, a Pittsburgh-based family physician who, using the pseudonym “Dr. G,” has written a number of books about teaching children social and cultural standards such as respect and responsibility.
Dr. Gilboa said it’s wrong to censor authors for “accurately reflecting their time and history” even when their prose clashes with the ideals of the modern enlightened age. A far better response, she said, is to talk directly to children about the issues in question with the proper values and context.
“Our own pivot is to say, ‘Oh, that author held a really warm place in my heart. … I associate them with positive memories.’ Now, I have to go back and make sure they don’t shape my ideas toward something I don’t think is ethical,” said Dr. Gilboa, a blogger and author of “Get the Behavior You Want … Without Being the Parent You Hate.”
Of course, Laura Ingalls Wilder is only the latest target for cultural or historical scrubbing for modern audiences. Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” sporadically comes under fire and scrutiny for its liberal use of a racial slur, even though Twain portrays the escaped adult slave Jim as the story’s most noble and sensible figure.
Meanwhile, Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, now is considered a peddler of racist imagery in some circles. Early in his career, Geisel worked as an illustrator of corporate ad campaigns, drawing caricatures of blacks and Asians that have been deemed offensive and stereotypical by those who uphold today’s standards.
Across the country, officials are moving with deliberate speed to remove Confederate memorials from public places and rename schools bearing the monikers of famed Confederates, in the wake of a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August.
Dr. Gilboa, noting the debate over Dr. Seuss’ body of work, pointed out that schools routinely honor the author’s birthday with readings, illustrations and homework assignments. That shouldn’t end based on select elements of his artistic career, she said, because younger minds can handle the complexity of the issue in play.
“First-graders can hear that things aren’t entirely ‘good’ or ‘bad,’” said Dr. Gilboa, likening the situation to complicated feelings about their own siblings. “I want you to love your brother, appreciate and value him, and I recognize sometimes he’s not your favorite person to play with.”
Rachel Keane, a blogger and political consultant, said that challenging art opens the door for critical conversations about the past and present.
Take the debate tied to “Huckleberry Finn.” A child may be confused about the racial slur or wonder why the author used it. A wise response would be to share the cultural significance of the word, connecting it to slavery and the nation’s unsteady growth beyond its hateful roots, she said.
Removing “Huckleberry Finn” from classrooms does a disservice to students and the culture at large, Ms. Keane said.
“We’re erasing our history. If you erase history, you’re bound to repeat it,” she said. “We’ve come from somewhere, and the past is gritty and it’s hard to look at, but you have to look at it.”
Ms. Scholes Young said her experience as a professor has taught her how students are “more open, more curious and more informed than their parents think they are.” It’s why adults should engage children with literature with open minds and a hunger for discussion.
“The biggest question I get [from students] is, ‘How could people have ever thought this way?’ Many people still do. They seem like outdated concepts, but are they?” she said.
The discussions can allow parents to bond with their children and pass along their values. It’s what art is supposed to do, Ms. Scholes Young said.
“Mark Twain would be pleased as punch that we’re still talking about [his work],” she said.