Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Woke Teachers Who Hate Literature

A view from the front lines of a public charter school
Young redhead woman over grey grunge wall reading a book with angry face, negative sign showing dislike with thumbs down, rejection concept

This came in from a teacher — I know his name and the name and location of his school — responding to the “Trashing Unwoke Books” post from earlier. I asked him to rewrite the e-mail to protect his own identity. Here’s the slightly edited version:

I’m a teacher. Right now I teach at a charter school in a red state in a conservative part of the US. Before that, I taught in a small Christian fundamentalist school, the public schools of a Rustbelt state, and then served a rural school in one of the nation’s most disadvantaged regions.

I have a masters in education and a two undergraduate degrees, all with honors, all from state universities. Teaching is a second career for me; before that, I was in manual labor, retail, and mostly in specialty construction.

All of this to say, my path was not the typical one for a teacher.

I was not surprised to read the post you had up this morning about teachers throwing books away. Every school I have taught at has had an ambivalent attitude to literature for very different reasons.

The Christian school was terrified of anything that didn’t fit their fundamentalist beliefs, and as a very conservative Christian from a very different tradition, I can share that concern, but not endorse how it was carried out there.

The wokeness of the department of education for the public schools I have served would have been very proud of this teacher. At the little rural school I taught at, no one cared what I did. I could have had Black Masses in my classroom as long as the kids behaved and their test scores were good.

[NOTE: The reader originally had a graf here that described his current school. I have removed it at his request. — RD]

I despair at the fact that so many administrators, both religious and non, and educators see themselves as vanguards for both the right and left in ideological battles, rather than as those who seek to form the character and minds of young people. At the same time, there are still excellent educators — even liberal educators — but the process of being hammered by parents, and the pathologies of the children that have been damaged by the materialistic and pleasure-centered culture and their parents, is just wearisome. After many years of teaching, I’m ready to go back to manual labor.

When I was serving in a poor, isolated, rural population, our school was about 35-40 percent Native American. The poverty of soul and body, mind, and material needs were heartbreaking. The poverty of the soul of the better-off white students was just as awful. The church was a dead letter there, the richness of their European-American high culture a faint memory. The school was the only thing left holding the community together. Since we left it has fallen apart through the wokeness of a new administrator who sought to remove every trace of local history and community from the school, for no apparent reason whatsoever.

However, not all teachers, even liberals, are wokesters. One of the things I noticed in my public school work in all these different communities was that conservatives don’t do anything. They don’t involve themselves; they don’t fight, they don’t speak up; they just let the left have its way. Some have withdrawn from the system, but that is all.

The wokeness is everywhere: in small rural schools and conservative suburban neighborhoods too. The public schools are just deferred to by Christian and conservative parents, in part because parents don’t always realize what is going on, and in part because they don’t want the opprobrium of the neighbors. They don’t bother to show up.

The corrective of the charter school movement is minimal, because charter schools are captive to the desires of the child. Funding in most states and districts is dependent on enrollment. So, unless you are a charter school in a location where you are offering the only superior alternative, education becomes a game of pleasing the child. Children drive most parental decisions about where they go to school. If the child is happy, say parents, then the child can go to school here; if not, they can change schools. The non-woke charter schools end up in a balancing act between their student populations’ desires and the amount of parental support they receive. Again, what is billed as great education is often a reverse image of the left’s indoctrination, or an anodyne neutrality.

The problem is this: without a lack of a clear and articulate metaphysics of humanity and of a robust Christian faith, school reform is pointless. Without those two pieces to bind our culture together, educational choice (that doesn’t include vouchers to pay for a religious education) is a meaningless way to save education. In reality, about 35 percent of charter schools are better than the public option on test measures — and I’m glad for that 35 percent! But many of them are mired in a materialist philosophy, moral neutrality, or [NOTE: I have removed the line that was here at the request of the author. — RD]

I will end with a story, if you are still reading.

At one poor, mostly minority school where I taught, I was the entire English department. When I arrived, the students hadn’t had any real instruction for several years, and were in a state of complete rebellion. The classroom was full of yellowed novel sets, most of them pop-fiction from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, and a fair selection of classics that had never been used. Over three years, I built up a collection of the best of Western European and American literature, and replaced the sets of good books that were too fragile to entrust to students. I also expanded the collection with an excellent selection of novels and poetry and drama from the wider non-Western world.

I also felt morally obligated to include novels and anthologies that focused on Native American literature and local regional writers as well, to show the students that intellectual and artistic endeavors were as much a part of their culture as any other. I hoped that the high quality of great writing, diversity of thought, and the bedrock of the Western Canon would be a solid guide for them through the world of literature.

I was proud of my work there as a teacher. The 400 or 500 old books, such as classics that were too fragile to use as a class set, or were works of fiction that had little relevance to teaching a robust curriculum, I gave to the students. We had reading days on Fridays, when they had to go pick up a book that they had never seen before, and just read it. They were welcome to take as many titles as they would read. Those that remained were put out on a table at parent/teacher night and on sport nights for free. The last 200 or so that remained were given to the library and the charity thrift store.

A year after I left, a new teacher took most of the classic Western novels, (most of which were newly bought) and even some of the classics and recent-classics of world literature, as well as the local novels, and put them in the Dumpster because “they were not relevant to the kids’ lives.”

I received another letter this morning, this one from a friend, quoting his public schoolteacher wife. He writes:

She told me that over the past several years, the quality and rigor of the curriculum declined by 50 percent. They just voted again to water it down further, basically removing any rigorous demands on students. Quality is nonexistent. New teachers are barely literate themselves. It made her very upset. We are talking about a mere three-year span, in one of the highest ranking (and definitely the wokest) school systems in the US. That’s hell of a gradient — one could even call it free fall.