Teaching "Offensive" Literature

Intellectual and Spiritual Dynamite

As teachers of literature, we handle intellectual and spiritual dynamite every day. Sometimes it comes in the form of a sentence tainted with crude or profane language, or in a passage that presents an uncomfortable idea of race, sexuality, suicide, or religion. So it’s not surprising that we also sometimes find ourselves being challenged for presenting literature that some parents and students find offensive. If we grant—as I think we must—that parents are indeed within their rights to raise such concerns, how can we answer them honestly? How can we justify teaching something that they find offensive?

My first unspoken reaction is often something like, “So you’re offended. So what? Who says we are never to be offended? Maybe one of the functions of literature is to offend us, at least occasionally.” There’s some truth to that. Yet to give voice to such a position is inflammatory and unlikely to make our jobs any easier. Given that we’re living in a society in which one of the greatest evils is apparently to offend someone’s sensibilities, we probably need to take a different approach, especially with those who are in positions of power over us.

Dismantling the All-or-Nothing Response

One important tactic in dealing with such a problem lies in dismantling the all-or-nothing response that elevates the whole issue into a melodrama of “The Upright People vs. the Evil Corruptors of Our Children.” At the simplest level, of course, this is self-preservation: if we let the drama play out on these terms, we’re going to lose. But more to the point is a simple regard for the truth: I for one don’t think I’m corrupting anyone with this literature. Reducing everything to a play of binary logic is superficial, and it’s worth taking the opportunity to strike a blow against it.

I’ve found, in talking to concerned parents, that the best approach is to try to establish a collaborative tone, predicated on the explicit assumption that neither the students nor the parents nor the teachers have to approve of or to condone everything that emerges in a text just because it’s assigned. Often establishing that fact is half the battle. Many parents haven’t actually thought about it: some consider that assigning a text for a class is synonymous with endorsing it in toto. That’s wrong, of course, but sometimes we need to say as much.

This fact, in turn, has at least two separate consequences. First of all, it should be clear that not every incident that emerges in a novel or a poem necessarily has even the author’s approval. Despite recent revisionist interpretations (chiefly from Hollywood), I remain confident that Hawthorne was not advocating adultery in The Scarlet Letter, Twain was not advocating slavery in Huckleberry Finn, and Goethe was not advocating suicide in The Sorrows of Young Werther (three books we do read and discuss in some of my courses). In my explicitly Christian program, I’ve found that the strongest argument is probably the text of the Bible, which details almost every kind of base and criminal behavior known to mankind—and which (most Christian parents agree) remains a supremely valuable book.

Second of all, even what has the author’s approval need not compel our own. Very early, I try to drill into my students that much of the point of the exercise is to develop their own critical acumen. If the author advocates something morally unacceptable to them, they don’t have to accept it just because it’s been delivered in a book. Authors are just people—a fact that’s overlooked with alarming frequency. Yet, if students never encounter books with which they disagree, and if they’re never encouraged to weigh literary matters against their own moral standards, they’re likely to go away with at least the tacit assumption that all published material (at least literary material) is morally directive. They will then be at the mercy of whatever text crosses their desks—and if we don’t challenge that assumption in high school, students will have no defenses when they hit these issues without any guidance later on.

Weighing the Merits

Having said all this, I realize that one can pursue this principle too far. I wouldn’t give my students Henry Miller, or much of James Joyce’s raunchier material. I don’t particularly think that Chopin’s Awakening has enough value to justify itself for my curriculum (but that’s probably just me). Certainly the grotesquely violent and the pornographic have no place in our curricula. But each case has to be weighed on its own merits, and it’s often not a completely cut-and-dried call.

Of course these are forms of appeal to the rational mind, and some of the more reactive parents are unwilling to approach things in a thoughtful way. It’s easier to rely on reductive incident counting of the sort one finds on the moral watchdog movie-review boards (“64 bad words; two instances of illicit sex; one scene of drug use; pervasive drinking...”) rather than seeing meaningful units in context. (I think I’ve shocked some people by telling them that I think Four Weddings and a Funeral is a grossly immoral movie, while Pulp Fiction is actually intensely moral... though I hasten to point out that I would recommend neither to my classes.) Where you can’t rely on the rational, you have to fall back on rhetoric or else plant-the-heels confrontation.

In my case, because I work as a private contractor (I teach AP® online), if the parents object to the material I’m teaching, they take it up with me directly, and if they’re not satisfied with my answers they simply don’t enroll their kids with me next year. My AP students have all been with me for at least two years (most for three). They tend to be accustomed to my way of working and their parents have some amount of confidence in me. However, I’ve lost students in earlier courses over such issues when parents remained silent and did not voice their concerns; one student (I learned after the fact) because I didn’t teach mythology primarily as a tissue of diabolical lies, and (I think) because in my Western Literature to Dante course we cover such things as the Volsunga Saga, which involves (rather discreetly, but unequivocally) an incestuous sibling relationship. Rational dialogue is your best avenue if you can open it up somehow. If you can’t... good luck.

Authored by

Bruce McMenomy
Freelance scholar and contract instructor in distance education