What Is Classic Remarks?
Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.
How Can I Participate?
Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!
(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)
This Week’s Prompt:
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie has been criticized for its depiction of Native Americans as “primitive.” Should students continue to read this book in school?
In recent years, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s perennially popular series, Little House on the Prairie, has received increased scrutiny. Some argue that the books should no longer be taught in schools because they focus on a white family unrepentantly moving west onto the lands of Native Americans. Others take offense at the ways in which the books depict the white character’s views of Native Americans. The argument is that even though the books give a historically accurate depiction of white setters in the late nineteenth century, children could be harmed by reading them. As the publishing industry and librarians reckon with the lack of diversity in books, I have seen some librarians say they are considering removing the books from the shelves, or that they have moved the books to the adult section, so they are not readily available to children.
When considering the pushback against Little House from industry and educational professionals, however, I think we also have to remember that much of the general public still loves Little House. I suspect that if the librarians who want to remove the books looked at their statistics, they would see that the circulation numbers are still strong. Many people have fond memories of reading the Little House books while growing up. They went on adventures with Laura on the prairie, and perhaps fell in love with the simple lifestyle she depicts, one where people made their own straw hats or made candy by pouring hot maple syrup in the snow. The people who loved Little House growing up are presumably attempting to pass that love onto the children now in their lives. Some people may wish that everyone would stop reading Little House altogether, but I do not think we are at that point.
So, when we ask whether schools should put Little House on the curriculum, I think we should consider that a number of children are presumably already exposed to the Little House books. Taking Little House off the school lists may not benefit these children. But reading Little House critically, putting it into historical context, and pairing it with alternative viewpoints such as Linda Sue Park’s Prairie Lotus (about a biracial girl growing up in the Dakota Territory in the 1880s) could help readers unpack what is going on in Wilder’s text. They might begin to recognize that Ma and Pa’s opinions are not shared by everyone and should not necessarily be taken as fact. That the Ingalls family is living on land that once was inhabited by Native Americans. That Laura Ingalls Wilder was living and writing during a time when the concept of Manifest Destiny was accepted by many, but that our own historical context makes us critical of this rhetoric.
Many of the arguments against children reading Little House seem to stem from the fear that readers will not be able to recognize that people of the past often held perspectives we now consider wrong. I think the best way to prepare readers to engage with texts critically is to teach them how to do so. It is decidedly more difficult for readers to recognize harmful beliefs and statements when they lack the necessary tools. And protecting children and young people from everything that we might consider harmful will ultimately be a futile task. One day, readers are going to be exposed to a work–and it may not even be an older work–that could depict something distasteful. What are readers to make of these moments, if they lack the necessary tools to recognize them, to think critically about them, and to respond to them?
Some of the arguments against teaching Little House seem to rest on the fear that educators are either unwilling to teach the books critically, or unable. I think this is a disservice to our educators. We have to try to trust them to do their jobs properly. If they lack the means or the knowledge to do so, we have to figure out how to provide the necessary training. The many lists I am now seeing published suggesting alternative reads or reads to pair with classic books are a great start. As the publishing industry diversifies, teachers will no longer need to rely on one viewpoint, or to use the lack of resources as an excuse. Publishing these books, promoting them, and providing educator guides for them will help the teachers who want to teach books critically but need somewhere to start.
So should schools teach Little House? I think it will ultimately be up to the schools to decide if they want to do so, and why. Do they have the necessary resources and training to put the book into historical context? Do they have time to pair it with another book with another perspective? Is their school population even interested in reading it? If not, maybe schools want to choose another book that is of more interest to their students or that teaches some other critical reading skills they think are important. I think there are plenty of good choices here for schools to consider. And I trust that most educators are committed to doing the right thing, to making their students feel welcome and heard, and to fighting inequity wherever they see it.