Over 18 years of teaching high school English, I taught American literature for English III (mostly a course for juniors) as part of the required curriculum in South Carolina.
Our required reading list of novels and plays was quite bad, overwhelmingly white authors and so-called classic works of literature (although the “classic” was merely the entrenched modernist works common in most public schools).
Along with the overkill of white men writers and characters, I found the American literature required list inordinately obsessed with Puritanism; students were required to study both Nathaniel Hawthorne’s (god awful) The Scarlet Letter and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
Either one would have been more than enough, and frankly, only The Crucible should have been included, if either at all. Students barely tolerated discussing The Scarlet letter, and I think very few actually read the novel (with the entire experience confirming for most of them that they hated to read).
However, we often had a good experience with Miller’s metaphorical/historical confrontation of the McCarthy Era. Over the years, I turned The Crucible unit into a world-wind of an experience that included listening to an audio version of the play (later in the mid-1990s, we watched the film version), an opening activity using R.E.M.’s “Exhuming McCarthy,” and a closing activity centered around watching the original film version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
What I think made The Crucible resonate with high school students in the South in the 1980s and 1990s was my effort to help them navigate how the play was designed to address patterns of human behavior that had occurred in Puritan America and then repeated in the McCarthy Era; Miller, of course, was suggesting that this pattern would continue if humans were not vigilant to recognize it.
I have always found compelling the scene when Proctor is confronted with the accusations about witches; he responds that he has not realized “the world is gone daft with this nonsense.”
That nonsense is a fatal combination of religious fever/ missionary zeal, political authoritarianism (the blurring of church and state), and an incredibly dangerous commitment to manufactured evidence.
While The Crucible dramatizes a political/ religious/ legal tragedy mostly anchored in real historical events, in 2023, it is a powerful allegory about our current political over-reaches related to schools and radiating out into our culture and personal liberties.
The same toxic combination of religious fever/ missionary zeal, political authoritarianism (the blurring of church and state), and an incredibly dangerous commitment to evidence can be seen in all of the following:
- Anti-CRT and anti-woke legislation.
- Book bans and censorship targeting race/racism and LGBTQ+ content and authors.
- Anti-trans and anti-drag legislation and rhetoric.
- Reading legislation committed to the “science of reading.”
In each case, “”the world is gone daft with this nonsense.”
The core problem we are experiencing in the US in 2023 is that religious fever/ missionary zeal among some Americans is being leveraged by Republicans to bolster their political power, skewing toward totalitarianism.
That combination corrupts the evidence being used to push these agendas.
Evidence is being reduced to whatever suits the political/authoritarian goals, and as a report out of UCLA notes regarding specifically the anti-CRT movement, the “conflict campaign thrives on caricature.”
Caricature and misinformation to drive political agendas include how “CRT,” “woke,” banned novels and authors, trans care, drag shows, and elements of reading instruction (such as three-cueing and balanced literacy) are mischaracterized in order to attack the mischaracterization.
Social media is flooded with false definitions of “woke,” for example, grounding outlandish calls for “protecting children.”
For Americans who value life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we must acknowledge Miller’s message that evidence cannot survive in the context of religious fervor/ missionary zeal and totalitarian politics (the consequential inevitability in theocracies).
While there is no such thing as objective evidence, there is a value in dispassionate evidence decoupled from authority.
The US was founded in part on a recognition that the church/state dynamic was oppressive, necessarily so, and despite the many flaws of the so-called Founding Fathers, they were drawn to the Enlightenment and a move toward scientific inquiry.
Despite the continued misuse of the term, “science” rightly understood is about grounding claims and conclusions in a careful analysis of evidence regardless of who makes the claims (decoupling from authority). And science is not about dogma (fixed Truth) but about the pursuit of truth by a community.
In 2023, we are living in the same “nonsense” Proctor named because too many are willing to abdicate the sanctity of evidence for their religious fervor/ missionary zeal and because there are enough political leaders eager to use that to leverage their pursuit of power at any cost to others.
If Nero fiddled while Rome burned, we are conveniently distracted by our many screens while life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are reduced to ash.