#DisruptTexts is an American educational movement whose website declares it to be “a crowdsourced, grass roots effort by teachers for teachers,” with a mission “to challenge the traditional canon in order to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum that our students deserve,” led by four language arts/English teachers: Tricia Ebarvia, Lorena Germán, Kim Parker and Julia Torres.
Their primary stated goal is commendable: to broaden the curriculum by including books that reflect “the rich diversity” of human experiences. They undoubtedly hope that assigning books written by minority authors will motivate minority students to become more involved in class and to read more on their own. The movement’s core principles include “center[ing] of Black, Indigenous and voices of color,” in the hopes of fostering empathy and critical thinking.
Who could be against such an enterprise? Their teaching guides were clearly written by experienced teachers and they sometimes seem focused on adding, not subtracting. But the new texts are invariably framed positively, while classic texts are subjected to harsh, tendentious and hyper-politicized critiques, even as teachers are admonished to “continually interrogate” their own biases. Claims that any work might embody universal values are summarily dismissed as emanating from the white worldview, which is linked to white supremacism. In effect, #DisruptTexts strives to diminish, discredit and eliminate classic works in the service of decolonizing the curriculum.
#DisruptTexts uses the word diversity to mean diversity of race, class and gender, especially race. “The rich diversity” of human individuality is thus reduced to a consideration of broad sociological groups.
“Literature study in U.S. classrooms has largely focused on the experiences of White (and male) dominated society, as perpetuated through a traditional, Euro-centric canon,” the website declares. But, while historically true, this more closely describes schools of 1971 than of 2021. Current primary and middle school reading assignments, classroom shelves and library selections feature all manner of multicultural texts, as do publishers’ lists and bookstores.
As a university teacher, I can attest that every American student I teach arrives on campus thoroughly versed in the tenets of diversity. Their school years included numerous multicultural assignments. Rather than disrupting anything, the #DisruptTexts movement is ramping up educational and cultural trends that have been in the ascendant for well over two decades.
Nor can the movement’s principles or causes be viewed as marginalized. By their own accounts, its leaders are inundated with invitations to speak, lead workshops and serve on national committees. Germán’s educational consulting business, for example, has been featured in the New York Times and Education Week, and she has spoken to the National Council of Teachers of English, the International Literacy Association and a number of schools.
The School Library Journal has published flattering profiles and sympathetic articles on this and similar movements. The journal sponsored a 2020 Summit entitled “Culture Shift,” with a keynote address on “Challenging the Classics.” This spring, they will offer a course on “Fostering an Antiracist Library Culture.” Penguin Publishers has its own #DisruptTexts webpage and recommends eight books for the use of “classroom educators.”
Despite its avowals to the contrary, the #Disrupt movement has scant use for the acknowledged classics. Germán has tweeted, “Did y’all know that many of the ‘classics’ were written before the 50s? Think of US society before then & the values that shaped this nation afterwards. THAT is what is in those books.”
This implies that all the classics are American. Most are not. It also displays a startlingly simplistic understanding of history that deals in moral absolutes. But, even if the past were filled with pure evil, wouldn’t that be all the more reason to try to understand it?
But, of course, the American past was not a time of pure evil, and many American and other classics draw attention to the social, moral and political failings of their times. Some of them were explicitly written to help right wrongs. Others combine misguided moral thinking with humane wisdom and searching questions.
Germán is not alone in viewing the past as a horror show from which to flee. This summer, memorials to abolitionist martyrs and civil rights heroes were vandalized alongside those of Confederates, revealing that their iconoclasm was underpinned by historical ignorance.
#DisruptTexts encourages teachers to “Ask: How does this text support or challenge issues of representation, fairness, or justice? How does this text perpetuate or subvert dominant power dynamics and ideologies?” These can be relevant questions. But they also reveal a fixation on power dynamics, and not all good literature seeks to subvert political power structures—much nature writing, for example, does not engage with such matters at all.
#DisruptTexts adherents allegedly “do not believe in censorship and have never supported banning books.” In response to a recent article by Meghan Cox Gurdon, Ebarvia has claimed that “each of us has studied, taught, and continue to teach from canonical texts.” But this is difficult to square with some of the declarations above. Furthermore, a growing number of the movement’s followers have posted on social media that they have removed or forced their schools to remove classic works from syllabi and course requirements.
“Take The Odyssey out of your curriculum because it’s trash,” opined teacher and researcher Shea Martin. Teacher Heather Levine congratulated her school for having done just that. “Challenging old classics is the literary equivalent of replacing statues of racist figures,” writes Padma Venkatraman in an article curiously entitled “Weeding Out Racism’s Invisible Roots.”
This is a highly politicized view of literature. “Do we encourage teachers to replace racist, harmful texts? ABSOLUTELY. Can you teach a great text and still have a harmful impact? Yep,” the #DisruptTexts account has tweeted. This is especially troubling in our hypersensitive age, in which harm is increasingly defined according to entirely subjective standards.
It is laudable to attempt to reach students by opening up the curriculum, but it poses certain dilemmas. There is a maximum number of pages that teachers can assign as reading, so to add one work necessitates eliminating another. Is it worth removing a classic in favor of a newly minted Young Adult novel?
The #Disrupt movement also seems to assume that the main purpose of reading literature is to explore sociopolitical ideas—ideas probably better dealt with in social science classes. There is no sense here that the artistic use of language is important. Tellingly, the word literature is rarely used—disrupters are interested in texts. They appear to view literary works and treatises as one and the same. #DisruptTexts repeatedly warns teachers to monitor their biases. Yet their own bias against aesthetic value seems to have gone undetected. This lack of feeling for language—troubling in a group of English teachers—might also help explain their turgid, jargon-laden prose.
Good teachers have always encouraged students to engage books critically. The classroom is no place for mindless worship. But there is a difference between informed criticism and deliberately hostile interrogation.
Reading lists and class assignments should continue to feature diverse voices. It is especially important for younger students to read books in which they can see themselves. But all students deserve the chance to discuss great works and to understand why they have stood the test of time. All students ought to learn to understand how things were seen in the past. All students deserve to view the works they read through a variety of lenses, not just those of which social justice activists approve.
#DisruptTexts is primarily in the business of elimination. The movement promises to increase the diversity of the texts students study, but they seem more concerned to eliminate the texts they dislike. This isn’t education: it’s activism. And it won’t help us bridge our differences, but threatens to sow future divisions.