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Ihsaan Fanusie

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(Warning: Spoiler Alert for the books The Grapes of Wrath, The Crucible, and The Scarlet Letter.)

For a school that constantly parades its diversity and inclusiveness, there is a stunning lack of such values in the Wilde Lake English curriculum.

Wilde Lake High School’s vision reads : “The Wilde Lake High School Community is committed to empowering students with the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve academic and social success in a diverse world.” So why, then, is the school actively pursuing a curriculum which is inherently biased and against diversity?

First, let me make something clear: I am not speaking of racial diversity here. No, the type of diversity I am discussing here is far more important.

I am referring to ideological diversity. The diversity of thought and philosophy. The radical concept which holds that differing points of view ought to be taught and deliberated.

It is simply undeniable that the prevailing ideology in the literature read here at Wilde Lake is liberal. By liberal I mean that the literature emphasizes ideals that support leftist politics. This includes the concepts of moral relativism, strong central government, and collectivism. The majority of the books assigned to students emphasize a decidedly liberal outlook on society and human nature.

And perhaps even that would be permissible if the ideology being pushed was not so misinformed, and, by virtue, dangerous.

From 9th grade, we are indoctrinated with novels pushing messages of social Marxism and the idea that an objective moral standard ought not exist.

It all begins with a critique of Christianity. Teachers often assign literature such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, or Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. One might think that this type of material acts as an attack on the ‘radical’ Christians of Puritan society. It certainly is true that the Puritans were sometimes extremist in their pursuit of ‘pure religion’. But is it not unjust that we are not also presented with literature in defense of the Puritan contribution to our society?

Consider an excerpt from Pulitzer-Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson’s The Death of Adam: “By the standards of the period in which they flourished, American Puritans were not harsh or intolerant in the ordering of their societies… I know from experience that if one says that the Puritans were a more impressive and integrating culture than they are assumed to have been, one will be heard to say that one finds repressiveness and intolerance integrating.”

Contemporary historians and scholars generally do not hold the view that Puritans were unusually severe and intolerant for their time period. In fact, the Puritans contributed to the greatest spread of literacy rates in colonial America, as they were required by their religion to read the Bible. The Puritan spirit of hard work gave birth to the famous ‘Protestant work ethic’ and helped found America on the unique ideals of freedom, opportunity, individualism, and personal responsibility.

Of course these ideals were never fully realized, in large part because of continuous breaches of individual liberties. Such grievances as slavery, the Native American trail of tears, and sexual discrimination have prevented the ‘American Dream’ from becoming a full reality. However, the nation has continually moved in the direction it has, due in large part to the commitment to these ideals.

The descendants of Puritan society were among the most ardent abolitionist from the beginning of American history. Calvinist Protestants used the Bible to condemn slavery on moral grounds and helped contribute to the American abolitionist movement.

Yet the books we are assigned seem determined to strip Puritan society from any and all good accomplishments.

Let’s take The Scarlet Letter as an example. The novel, published in 1850, details the story of a woman living in 17th century Puritan society in Massachusetts who commits adultery and is ostracized by her community because of her ‘sin’. Although the protagonist is generally a morally upright person, the members of her society continue to attempt to guilt her into repentance. No doubt such awful behavior was not unheard of among the American Puritans, but casting a singular perspective on the contributions on an entire society is a gross overgeneralization. This is especially true when the overall achievements of a society are overlooked and their ideals, which were essentially good, are scorned.

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible presents a similar situation. The book details a fictionalized version of the 17th century Salem Witch trials. Miller takes an isolated incident (the witch trials lasted less than 4 months) which is horrid and ghastly, but not necessarily indicative of the society as a whole, and uses it as a commentary on Puritan values and their quest for ‘justice’. Written at the height of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, the novel is intended to be a commentary about the overzealous pursuit of communism. The problem with using a historical scenario to prove a point is that one will often distort historical facts in order to validate their own philosophy.

This is most certainly the case in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The book follows the journey of one family of farmers from Oklahoma to California in search of work. The book addresses the mythical nature of the American Dream and criticizes the concept of individualism. Steinbeck directly condemns capitalism for the effects of the Great Depression. He blames the banks and corporations for the ills of the working poor, justifies the actions of individuals as the effects of a ‘broken system’, and insists that the American Dream is dead.

Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath supports collectivism and advocates for general equality. The problem with this is that it comes in direct conflict with the moral value of individualism upon which capitalism is based upon. Whether or not Steinbeck is right in his pursuit of a society that values the rights of the collective over the rights of the individual, it is worth reading literature that shows both sides.

Steinbeck was an ardent supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a confirmed member of several communist organizations. So of course, it comes as no surprise that Steinbeck doesn’t mention the destructive policies of FDR’s New Deal and their role in prolonging and worsening the Great Depression.

In fact, Steinbeck advocates for these policies. According to Times-Standard, a news organization, “Steinbeck was controversial in his day for belonging to the League of American Writers, a Communist organization in 1935. Historians suggest that Steinbeck’s contacts with leftist authors, journalists, and labor figures influenced much of his writing.”

It seems rather befuddling that we study books like The Grapes of Wrath and praise their ideals, while utterly vilifying the ideals presented by Puritan society. This isn’t to say Puritan society was always ‘good’, but rather that not everything in Puritan society is evil. How can we praise the works of confirmed communist supporters like Steinbeck and Miller as well as ‘democratic’ socialist George Orwell? It is communism, not Puritanism, that has resulted in the deaths of between 85 and 100 million people.

How is it that in my 3 year high school career, I’ve read the works of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and several socialist authors (all in English class), yet I have never read the works of Adam Smith (considered the father of capitalism), Milton Friedman (Nobel Prize winning economist and proponent of the free market system), or F.A. Hayek (a notable 20th century economist)? Why are we taught to use Freudian analysis in literary criticism but apparently cannot read about Ayn Rand’s objectivism?

The problem has become systemic. It is not possible to simply ignore the ideology being pushed in today’s curriculum, particularly in the English Language Arts. Many of the novels that are commonly assigned to students criticize the individualist nature of capitalism as well as the concept of personal responsibility. Yet rarely is there a book assigned in school that strengthens the notion that each person is responsible for his/her actions and that individual rights ought to be valued first and foremost. Religion is under a particularly harsh scrutiny as well.

Not all of the books we are assigned are part of a systematic ideological attack. Some literature, like the works of Shakespeare, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, are generally considered classics with more all-inclusive ideals. Most of the ideals in these novels and plays are universally appreciated today. But the overwhelming trend in most literature read at Wilde Lake is liberal.

So what can we do?

The answer is not to stop reading these books, as many of them have inherently good ideals and are necessary for success in college. The solution is to broaden the range of books that students read in order obtain a better balance in literature.

Teachers ought to assign books like Robinson’s Gilead, Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, or Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Such books reinforce more, for lack of a better word, ‘traditional’ themes such as the value of personal responsibility and hard work ethic, the importance of the free market system, and individualism.

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