Should Little House on the Prairie Still Be Taught in Schools? (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

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.

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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?

Star Divider

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.

25 thoughts on “Should Little House on the Prairie Still Be Taught in Schools? (Classic Remarks)

  1. kat says:

    The Little House books are some of my mom’s favorites, but I never read them. I did watch the TV series throughout my childhood, but have no idea how faithful they were to the books. As a parent of a young child currently going through distance learning, I fall heavily on the side of providing a well-rounded education, one that will present information on the same event from various perspectives. There’s only so much time in the school year, much less the school day, to focus on that, so I understand schools’ reluctance to touch topics that might be harmful. Schools like to say a child’s education is dependent on the teachers and the parents working together, so, as a parent, I see it as my job to expand my child’s horizons beyond what school offers. Sadly, many parents don’t have the opportunity or ability to do so, so I support schools making the decisions they need to. Still, the Little House books are classics and do offer a viewpoint of that time in history. Laura was white, and that was her perspective. She was also writing them at a very different time from now, so there’s some historical value.

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    • Krysta says:

      You raise a great point that schools have limited time and have to choose what to teach. If they think another book is worth teaching, that’s fine with me! I think it will depend a lot on the school’s location, what their students are interested in, etc. But I do agree that the books have historical value. They are autobiographical in nature and meant to depict one girl’s life during that time period. I think it’s worth discussing what Wilder’s perspective gives to our understanding of life on the prairie.

      Liked by 1 person

      • kat says:

        Exactly! There are so few records of what life was like during a certain time, so books like hers really do offer a window into the past even if it’s now considered controversial. How else are students supposed to get an idea of what life was like? Besides, it can open up a lot of good conversation to merge past and present and hopefully produce some very aware students who are thoughtful and analytical.

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        • Krysta says:

          I have noticed that recent releases try to make the past more palatable. The protagonists usually hold very progressive (for their time) views. I think a book with a protagonist who thinks like Laura and her family would be unpublishable today. And yet, she is showing us a historically accurate picture of what she remembers experiencing.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. salonimore1702 says:

    I had no idea this series was under scrutiny (I don’t live in the States) but I loved the books growing up. I agree with your points. I don’t think it’s necessary to completely abolish the books from the curriculum. It would make for some interesting compare and contrast activities if the series was paired with another book that showed things from a different perspective.

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    • Krysta says:

      It’s been under scrutiny for years, but especially this year. Periodicals like School Library Journal, for example, have been suggesting that the books no longer be read and that teachers use contemporary books instead.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. rsrook says:

    I loved those books as a kid, reminded me of family stories I heard from my grandmother. I think it would be good to pair it with something else (Like the Birchbark House series–which is by an Ojibwe author and is meant to be kind of a kid-friendly Native parallel to the Little House series).

    Prairie Lotus looks interesting though, I hadn’t heard of that one before.

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  4. bargainsleuthbookreviews says:

    I think if the books are used as part of the curriculum, it’s a teaching moment when discussing how Native Americans are portrayed. At least, that’s how my daughters’ school did it when they read on of the other books in the series a few years ago.

    I feel the same way about Nancy Drew books; the originals date back to 1930. So many racial and social stereotypes, yet I think it if there’s a discussion with kids about it it can be a learning experience.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I think it’s not really possible to prevent readers from encountering problematic parts of books. I think it’s how we discuss what we see happening that will really help readers to engage with texts on their own.

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  5. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    I agree there’s no reason a school has to assign the book; there are plenty of books to read! But I do think many kids enjoy them, and it’s possible to teach them in context and with other perspectives, if teachers wish to and have the time to do so. I also think that, as students continue reading, they’re of course going to encounter offensive and outdated viewpoints in other books/classics, so introducing that concept and how to deal with reading things you don’t agree with isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

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    • Krysta says:

      I remember the Little House books were recommended highly to me by a friend when I was in the fourth grade–I read and loved them all! I didn’t recognize the problematic parts back then. I just thought Laura’s life on the prairie was interesting. I wonder what would have happened if my school had studied the book and talked about it? Would I have seen the books differently?

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  6. Alyson Woodhouse says:

    My memories of the Little House series are rather vague, I only encountered snippets of them here and there for close reading tests at school, and never felt sufficiently drawn into that particular world to read the entire series for myself. I think the current unease about asigning them as texts in a classroom is actually part of a wider issue about sensorship, and whether stories with outdated ideas around race, gender etc should be taught at all. Personally, I think it is important for children, and adults for that matter to be exposed to potentially problematic viewpoints in literature if handled sensetively by teachers, as it helps to place our own attetudes and opinions into a stronger context. I like the idea of potentially pairing a classic with another book with a different perspective, as it should promote constructive conversation and debate. If children are only exposed to texts which are politically or morally clean, then they may become more shocked in adulthood when they encounter stories with problematic viewpoints.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think we need to consider that a good number of books that were written in the past (and even maybe five years ago!) are now considered “problematic.” Is it possible to prevent readers from encountering anything problematic in a text? Is it helpful to protect readers from everything we might find problematic? I think it’s more useful to acknowledge that things were different in the past. It’s more useful to be able to look at a book like Little House and recognize the attitudes the white settlers held, and to examine why they held those attitudes, and to discuss how those attitudes have been carried into the present day. Perhaps we’d like to think it’s just Wilder’s family who were dismissive of Native Americans and their culture, but is that true? Or do we see this still happening today? I think a book like Little House could potentially open up a conversation about these issues.

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  7. RAnn says:

    I find it interesting that the profession that most decries censorship in reading material wants to censor. They don’t want to censor books that violate the conscience of fundamentalist Christians, only those that violate the conscience of todays “woke” liberals. Should Little House be taught in schools? The fact of the matter is the experience and attitudes of the Ingalls family were pretty normal at the time and are part of our history. They weren’t horrible mean people, they were a family (probably led by a misfit father, because those who weren’t misfits went someplace and stayed) who reflected the other people of their time.

    I was an elementary ed major in college in the early ’80s and took a course in Literature for Children. Of course censorship was covered and of course it was named as a bad thing. Then the feminist instructor was telling us about a friend of hers who visited her daughter’s school library and found one of those series of books for young children about careers. It showed men as doctors, lawyers, business men, firemen, policemen, etc. and women as teachers, nurses, secretaries, meter maids etc. She reported with obvious satisfaction that her friend got those books removed from the school library. I pointed out that that was censorship, and her face fell, and she admitted I was right.

    Reality is that no library can purchase every book published. Reality is that at some point books outweigh their usefulness and should be disposed of. However, if a book is being checked out regularly, it has obviously not outlived its usefulness–no matter what I personally think of its content.

    Generally what I hear when it comes to complaints about censorship is that I (the person complaining about censorship) want to be the one doing the selecting to make sure the materials express my viewpoint, whether that viewpoint is that we need to restrict children’s reading and/or public dollars to books that support a traditional world view or whether that viewpoint is that we need to purchase and keep only materials expressing the viewpoint that acceptance of the idea that all races and sexual behaviors are equal.

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    • Krysta says:

      I do see some of the conversations around the classics veering into censorship these days. I think if a book that was not Little House had been removed from the children’s room in the library, people would automatically understand that to be censorship–you are denying a group of people in the community the ability to access a book. This actually did happen recently, with two states trying to create parental oversight boards that would remove books with sexual content (vaguely defined) to the adult section, and librarians were outraged: https://pagesunbound.wordpress.com/2020/02/23/some-states-want-to-legalize-censorship-in-libraries/. Now, interestingly, I see the librarians wanting to remove Little House.

      Of course, one could argue that the book will “harm” children and it’s better off not accessible, but the tricky thing about censorship is that ANYONE can use that line of reasoning to remove the books of their choice. I worry about schools and libraries setting a precedent for censorship in the name of “protecting the children.” If we start by removing Little House, we might end up removing a lot more from public access, and the books removed won’t always be ones the original censors disagree with.

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  8. Never Not Reading says:

    Oh Krysta, *sighs*, if only it was that I didn’t trust educators to do this right. I think educators can and want to do these things. But with common core and standardized testing controlling our school environments, teachers just don’t have TIME to have all these important, critical conversations. In the school I was at last fall, we literally didn’t teach social studies AT ALL because it wasn’t a tested subject. So few elementary teachers I talk to here in Texas even do novel studies at all anymore. Something big needs to change at the national and state levels if we want to teach books (any books) in the way you’re suggesting.

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  9. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    You make the same points I tried to make in my post, but much more eloquently. I haven’t read these books, but I’ve had quite a few conversations with people who read these books as children and didn’t even notice the racism. Now, part of this has to do with the fact that our children are much more “woke”, as it were today. My nieces would totally call out some of this racism and cruelty. But I love the idea of giving schools the opportunity to explore these books in the appropriate historical depth.

    I wonder if these books are listed as part of the Common Core curriculum today? I don’t even know how to look that up…

    My Classic Remarks post: http://deathbytsundoku.com/classic-remarks-on-the-banning-of-little-house-on-the-prairie/

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, that’s true. I think many people who grew up with the Little House books just have memories of Laura having fun adventures. Some of the things people cite now as problematic are maybe a line or two that perhaps a child would gloss over and, in later years, they would possibly just remember the general idea of prairie life or specific scenes. But I think you’re right that today’s readers might be more alert to problematic parts. Arguably, however, that’s because they’ve been trained to look for them and recognize them–they haven’t been totally shielded from the reality that some people write things we now find disagreeable.

      I’m not sure if they’re listed as part of the Common Core. My hazy memory of the standards when they first came out was that there was a list of recommendations, but there was not a list of required books. Additionally, from what my teacher friends have told me, states have the ability to change a certain percentage of the standards. And then private schools have the ability to change another percentage of the standards. So what’s being taught in one school might be very different from another school, even with the Common Core.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

        When Common Core came out I had just left teaching public school so I intentionally avoided learning about it as part of my defiance. (I couldn’t find a job teaching despite my Education degree and 365 job applications – When I found jobs elsewhere, I ran and didn’t look back at a profession that didn’t want me) I’m sure Common Core’s structure would be fascinating to me now. I’d love to learn about how it works someday.

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