By: Kate Lechtenberg
I don’t like didactic art, even when I agree with it. I’m a big Barbara Kingsolver fan, but I rolled my eyes and skimmed my way through large chunks of Flight Behavior, the 2012 novel that the Los Angeles Times called a Blue State morality tale. Kingsolver didn’t need to lecture me about the tragedy of climate change; I got a more powerful message from her descriptions of landscape and butterfly than from listening to her characters’ long, preachy monologues.
Likewise, I enjoy young adult literature, but I cringe at hints of didacticism in the end of Benjamin Alire Saenz’s beautiful Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. And even though I’m English teacher and librarian, I’m tired of well-meaning educators in novels from Catcher in the Rye to Anderson’s Speak to every Chris Crutcher book who pronounce the author’s messages to adolescent readers.
In honor of International Children’s Book Day on April 2, Western Australian University researchers Broomhall, McEwan, and Tarbin remind us that moral instruction has long been central to children’s literature: “We tend to see children’s literature as providing imaginative spaces for children, but are often short-sighted about the long and didactic history of the genre.”
From Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes (with its colorful subtitle, “Drawn out of the breasts of both TESTAMENTS for their souls nourishments”) in 1656 to William Bennett’s 1993 The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories, some common classroom texts carry an explicitly didactic goal. Other great works of classic and contemporary literature in U.S. high schools, from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, are alternately embraced for their powerful messages and critiqued for being overly didactic.
Outright spiritual instruction has faded from the educational landscape, and now the space between powerful artistic questions and preachy pronouncements is gray. How do we negotiate that line?
Didactic or nonpartisan?
Last month the question of didactic art in schools was in the spotlight when Shepard Fairey’s “We the People” posters were removed from Carroll County Public Schools classrooms after complaints that the posters were anti-Trump. School officials claimed the posters violated the district’s policy against political speech by teachers in classrooms.
Shepard Fairey didn’t use the words “protest” or “anti-Trump” in his interviews with CNN or the Los Angeles Times about his “We the People” art campaign, but subsequent news outlets from CNN to the Carroll County Times adopted those political terms. The Amplifier Foundation, on the other hand, sponsors the campaign and specifically describes the art as a “nonpartisan campaign dedicated to igniting a national dialogue about American identity and values through public art and story sharing.”
Many voices weighed in on the issues, from a Carroll County artist’s view that style and interpretation don’t make art political to a Carroll County commissioner’s concern that public school curriculum has become dominated by liberal ideology. Student protests in Carroll County featured Kickstarter-funded “We the People” t-shirts, but were interrupted by a bomb threat.
So which is it? Do we follow Fairey and The Amplifier Foundation’s more general statements about inclusiveness, diversity, and ending the discord that many demographic groups felt during the 2016 campaign? Or are school administrators right in their claim that dialogues about American identity and values constitute political speech that teachers should not bring into the classroom?
Dialogue cures didacticism
Maybe that’s the key: dialogue. We underestimate our young people when we neglect to include them in these dialogues.
Did the teachers who posted the “We the People” art engage their students in dialogue about the art, their messages, and the contexts in which they were created? Or did they trust the art to automatically spread a positive message of diversity? I don’t know–because once this issue hit the presses, the teachers and their students were no longer part of the conversation.
Posters and books alone don’t lead to progress. Though I support the message behind the “We the People” art and I will continue to teach books that raise compelling questions about political questions, we are sadly mistaken if we think that putting up posters or handing students a book equates to concrete social action.
Art on the walls and books in our students hands are only the beginning. Seeing Shepard Fairey’s posters on the walls won’t heal our political divisions, and reading To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t cure racism. Only rigorous discussion of art and literature in classrooms can begin the work of what artists intend: to start dialogue, and to invite us to reflect on our lives, our communities, and our world. We can’t be afraid of these dialogues, and we can’t shut them down before they begin.
So let’s start talking.
Kate Lechtenberg is in her first year of doctoral studies in Language, Literacy, and Culture at the University of Iowa. After teaching high school English for 10 years and working as a school librarian for four years, her research focuses on how affect, emotion, and morality intersect with the structural constraints of educational policies and standards. Lechtenberg teaches a young adult literature course for preservice teachers and English majors and a course on collection development for preservice teacher librarians in the School of Library and Information Science, and she is currently serving on the AASL Standards and Guidelines Implementation Task Force. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.