Misreading Innocence in Teaching and Learning

Back to school 2022 looks different than any of my many years as a student and even more as a teacher. “Back to school” now means curriculum bans for teachers and censorship for students.

It’s the Upside Down of the American Dream and academic freedom.

One recurring (and misleading) justification by Republicans banning curriculum and censoring books is a manufactured crisis around “age-appropriate” content; however, several Republicans have also directly begun including in their claims that the role of school and teachers is to protect childhood innocence:

As a parent, grandparent, and almost 40-years a teacher, I want to emphasize that the role any adult plays in mentoring, parenting, or teaching children is not to protect their innocence (more on why later), but to provide support and guidance as children mature and come to know the full, complicated, and often disturbing real world.

To keep a child or teen innocent is to deny them their full humanity and autonomy.

As a reader and teacher of literature, I am aware of the power and allure of idealizing innocence.

Setting aside for a moment the tremendous problems with author J.D. Salinger, his career was built on a nearly fawning adoration of his central motif, the “catcher in the rye” imagery of Holden Caulfield’s quest to protect his sister’s (and all children’s) innocence because he clearly has been traumatized by his entry into the adult world.

Author Eudora Welty praised Salinger as a writer in her review of Nine Stories in 1953:

The stories concern children a good deal of the time, but they are God’s children. Mr. Salinger’s work deals with innocence, and starts with innocence: from there it can penetrate a full range of relationships, follow the spirit’s private adventure, inquire into grave problems gravely–into life and death and human vulnerability and into the occasional mystical experience where age does not, after a point, any longer apply. Mr. Salinger’s world urban, suburban, family, mostly of the Eastern seaboard is never a clue to the way he will treat it: he seems to write without preconception of shackling things.

Threads of Innocence

Like Salinger (and nearly as problematic as a human), e.e. cummings idealized childhood and seemed to lament adulthood: “children guessed(but only a few/and down they forgot as up they grew.” Like many writers and artists throughout history, cummings portrayed childhood innocence as being closer to God (or the Universe); adulthood is a forgetting.

Both of these authors were attractive to me as a young writer, teacher, and even scholar, but the most compelling work about innocence was always William Blake, who complicated the innocence/experience dynamic. Blake’s work shows the necessary duality of life without idealizing innocence—even as he detailed the darkness of experience.

What is innocence?

It is a lack of awareness, a lack of knowledge, the absence of living life that is idealized not only in literature but in Christianity—the fall from grace, eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, being cast out of the idyllic innocence of the Garden of Eden.

But innocence is extremely dangerous, and the innocent are easily manipulated, easily controlled.

And here is the truth about curriculum bans and book censorship: Republicans, conservatives, and Christian fundamentalists are primarily concerned about control—especially controlling women and children.

There is no crisis in our schools concerning exposing children and teens to content and books that are not age appropriate. If anything, traditional schooling still coddles children and teens—and especially young adults.

Protecting the innocence of children is not a valid goal for teachers or schooling; protecting the innocence of children is cruel and dehumanizing, in fact.

But that is not what Republicans are concerned about.

This is pure and simple a power grab, a way to control minds and impose a worldview on others.

Welcome to the Upside Down of the American Dream.


Recommended

Experimentalism and its relation to a new psychology (1935), Witty and LaBrant