I just didn’t get it.
I thought I was open-minded and experienced, but this woman’s attitude made no sense to me.
It happened to me in my first few years of teaching English and history at a high school in Milwaukee. It wasn’t my student, but a parent complained about one of the books we all assigned in our freshman English classes. The book had never seemed very objectionable to me. Like a lot of the books for high-school English classes, it was a coming-of-age story, the story of a boy wrestling with his Catholic faith. He is torn between his ardent church faith and the competing faith of his grandmother. She relies on a more indigenous faith, a mixture of Christianity, Native American religions, and animism. As the boy bungles his way through adolescence, he finds too much in Catholicism that doesn’t make sense, and a lot more in his grandmother’s earth religion that does. Seemed pretty innocuous to me. What teenager—at least what sensitive, intelligent teenager of the sort we wanted our students to be—didn’t have to wrestle with those questions of faith and doubt?
One of my colleagues spent most of an academic year going back and forth with this parent. She found the book outrageous. She was Catholic, her son was Catholic, and she thought that the book was nothing more than an attack on her faith. Nothing could be more despicable, in her opinion, than a school in which students were taught to question their beliefs. A school in which students were expected and encouraged to investigate and possibly abandon the verities of their religion.
As I remember, the parent made these points in a particularly unpleasant way. She was personally hostile to my colleague, suspicious and accusatory toward our principal, too. Her attitude was one of a self-righteous pioneer in an ugly and evil land.
Nevertheless, the adults worked it out. The student didn’t read the book. But there were a lot of bad feelings all around. The whole encounter made me examine my own assumptions. First of all, it made me realize that I had been operating with an implicit “progressivist” world view. That is, I believed without thinking about it that our society was moving in a more and more secular direction, and that our society was getting more and more equitable and just. Not that it was perfect, but that we were moving away from an ugly past of witch hunts and white supremacy. I noticed that I was surprised that there were “still” parents like this one, who expected to raise her kid free from confronting fundamental questions about his faith.
I also had to admit that she had a point. I had taught the same novel in my classes, and it really did encourage students to see traditional Catholic faith as a kind of racket, a bill of goods that intelligent people shouldn’t fall for. I had to admit that if I had shared that version of the Catholic faith, I would certainly not want my kids reading that book. Plus, I noticed for the first time my own implicit mission as a teacher. I had assumed without thinking much about it that my goal was to help my adolescent students wrestle with such questions in a productive way; a way that helped them to understand the moral ambiguity of the world. Again, I realized that a parent who didn’t want that kind of education for her kids would be correct in thinking that her son’s teachers was trying to accomplish some sort of brainwashing.
Looking back, I assume that one of the reasons why this parent was so hostile and personally aggressive may have been because she had been reading and listening to folks telling her horror stories about the aggressively, insidiously secularizing schemes of “progressive” teachers like me and my colleagues. And we certainly must have seemed at best condescending when we spoke to her. I remember our faculty chats about the incident, and I believe people used such terms as “nutjob” and “wacko.”
Now, looking back, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a parent to be involved in the kinds of literature her kids will be reading. At the same time, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to try to expose high-school students to ideas that will challenge their comfortable preconceptions. Even in this particular case, we managed to work it out. But only with angry feelings and hostility all around.