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Literature and the New Culture Wars: Triggers, Cancel Culture, and the Teacher’s Dilemma

Deborah A. Appleman
Published by W. W. Norton & Company in 2022

After my Children’s Literature class has read their first book of the semester, I often ask them whether they think that book is appropriate for children.  The answer from my students (most of them future teachers) is almost always “No.”  It doesn’t really matter what the book is.  I think this is because, in thinking of themselves as teachers, my students believe their primary responsibility regarding books is to keep their students safe.  And books, of course, contain things that might imperil their charges. 

But then I ask them a follow up question:  “Do you think that it would have been okay for you to read this book when you were a student?”  My students’ response is, strangely, almost always “Yes”.  And when I ask them why they feel that book would be bad for their future students to read, but okay for them to read when they were that age, they often don’t have an answer.  

Deborah Appleman’s Reading with Good Sense is confronting this same problem on a national scale.  Parents, pundits, and politicians from both sides of the political spectrum are working overtime to ban books that they believe have dangerous notions in them, to cancel books written by authors who have demonstrated themselves to be deeply imperfect people, and to place trigger warnings on any book that might make students feel uncomfortable.  Those same people feel strongly that they are well-equipped to discern truth and deal with uncomfortable truths, though whether that is true is another question.

Appleman finds herself in an uncomfortable position writing this book.  As she puts it in chapter 1,  “I believe in diversifying the literature curriculum.  I believe that literature should function as both ‘mirrors and windows’ (Sims-Bishop 1990) for all our students, reflecting their lived experiences.  I also believe that students should be taught to read and resist the ideology inscribed in both texts and worlds.  So why am I resisting some of the most significant gestures of this new movement for social justice and equality, gestures that include cancel cultures, trigger warnings, and the removal of texts from the literature curriculum in both secondary and postsecondary classrooms?”(p. 3).  The answer to that question has to do with what reading is and should be, what students need, and how we can best prepare them for the world we live in..

In the first couple of chapters, she makes the nature of the problem clear.  She starts out with a case study of sorts, using one of the most common books in the high school English curriculum, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.  Many challenges to the book, she explains, come from a movement with a very different reason for banning books than in the past.  Appleman explain that, “This latest assault on the novel seems to belong to a larger movement, markedly different in its ideological bent.  According to this movement, the literature curriculum needs to be purged of works that offend”(p. 7-8).  Because the characters in Of Mice and Men treat Lennie, who has a cognitive disability, with insults and ultimately violence, the book needs to be banned.  Thus it is not so much an attempt to ban something because it runs counter to a religious or political movement, but rather simply because we do not want to expose student readers to anything offensive.  

Though I do not know Appleman’s religious background, I cannot help but think that some of her critique seems grounded in a Reformed understanding that humans are broken and sinful, and if fiction is going to have any value at all, it must truthfully depict the ways that humans treat each other, even when those ways might be violent, immoral, or offensive.  

She also calls out an accompanying response that is all too common from school officials.  She points to what she calls a “stunningly revealing explanation” in which a spokesperson for a school district that took Of Mice and Men out of the classroom stated, “there are currently materials that can address the skills the novel is supposed to teach.  Students have been reassigned a series of short stories that teach the same skills”(p. 8).  It is hard not to conclude that the district believes all texts which can be used to teach the same skills have the same value.  Appleman goes on to argue that novels have value that reaches beyond their use as content to help teachers reach common core objectives.  

As she sees it, “Literature helps us to understand what it means to be human.  Through literature we will both be awed by the beauty and confronted by the complexity of the human condition. Therefore, through literature we will confront some ugly truths about humankind, truths that should not be avoided”(p. 10).  Thus when school districts exclude some literature in favor of less controversial material that can reach the same goals, they are also excluding students from experiences that might be jarring, emotionally unsettling, cognitively disorienting, and downright difficult – but might also allow student readers to rethink, reimagine, and discover new ideas, new feelings, and new ways to apply their faith to the world.  Appleman believes we should read not to avoid discomfort, but to experience it(p. 12). She quotes Kafka’s well-known statement that books must be like an axe for the frozen sea within us.  

Rather than removing any books that speak with texture, context, complexity, moral questions, outrage, and realism, Appleman suggests teachers should use challenged texts to encourage student readers to think about how communities and cultures are represented and to consider “issues of authority, representation, and authenticity”(p. 12), and to “lay bare inequalities and issues of racism and sexism”(p. 13).

The challenge, then, is for literature teachers to balance the impulse to exclude demeaning, offending, or even harmful texts, and the impulse to still teach books that may contain problematic language, dialogue, or representation, but might also be valuable in terms of history, aesthetics, and learning.   Appleman suggests that teachers focus on “teaching students and other readers to resist troublesome content by understanding and examining the source of it”(p. 14).  She emphasizes that teaching literature includes teaching resistance to troublesome content.  Some literature presents a falsehood of what life is like – and in doing so goes against what literature is meant to do: reveal truth. 

Chapter 2 features a second case study, this time Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  As those who have read the book will likely agree, it is a powerful (and sometimes funny) story of an adolescent growing up in poverty on a reservation who attends a white high school and must reconcile who he is in two different contexts.  While the novel initially received some pushback for its frank (though brief) mention of masturbation, the powerful truth in the story made it an excellent curricular choice for schools across the country.  When Alexie was accused of using his position as a literary mentor inappropriately during the height of the #metoo movement, the book was pulled without much fuss permanently from classrooms and school and public libraries.  

Appleman does not spend time addressing the truth of Alexie’s alleged transgressions, but questions whether the behavior of an author needs to definitively determine whether we read a book or not.  She asks how far we might be willing to go to eliminate the work of anyone whose behavior is problematic.  As a Christian in the Reformed tradition, this question resonated with me.  Christians understand that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  No author is free of the brokenness of sin.  Is the best way to address real and problematic behavior denying access to that author’s work?  

Instead, she gives the example of a high school in Minneapolis where the teachers described the controversy surrounding Alexie.  Students read articles about it, including those that advocated for removal of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian from schools and libraries.  They also read reviews of the book and of other books by Alexie.  After two days of discussion, students voted on whether to read the book or one of several alternative books as a class.  Teachers told students that regardless of the vote, individuals would still be allowed to choose an alternative reading if they wished.  The vote was to read Alexie and no one chose to opt out. 

Appleman also addresses books that are cancelled for being deemed inauthentic, cancelled because of opinions the author posted on social media, and for other reasons. As Appleman puts it, “For a teacher of literature, these conversations point to a colossal literary miseducation that is equally alarming.  It is one thing to mount a considered critique about a literary text that one has read; it’s another to do so without either having read the text, or worse, not understanding some of the basic premises of how fiction works”  (p. 31).  Appleman believes that responding to books in the way we have in recent years is reinforcing a culture of unkindness, judging, and bullying.  As she puts it, “In the fiercely absolute world of cancel culture, there just doesn’t seem to be any room for forgiveness, a major cornerstone of all major religions, and even our own constitution.  Unlike cancel culture, forgiveness does not seek to destroy.  It seeks to repair”(p. 36).

She goes on to discuss, with care, nuance, and thoughtfulness, the ways in which trigger warnings can render literature ineffective by discouraging students from reading stories that might be unsettling to them. Trigger warnings may also deflate surprises and moments in literature that might shock readers in a way that causes them to rethink ideas. Appleman takes pains to say that she understands that for some students, trigger warnings can help them be able to prepare to interact with material that might be difficult for them.  She also argues, however, that we need to protect students who do not need such warnings from losing the chance to encounter the story as it was written. 

Another area of concern involves issues that are politically sensitive or even explosive.  She identifies topics like “representation, authenticity, marginalization, essentialism, sexism, homophobia, and racism, just to name a few“(p. 78).  If these topics are prominent in young adult literature, many schools, teachers, or parents move to censor or remove such works for fear that the discussions following reading these topics will be uncomfortable. Appleman supports care in this area, admitting that educators need to be aware of the ways that “damaging portrayals that are regularly found in the literature we assign – portrayals that belittle, minimize, and demean others…need to be reconsidered and then perhaps permanently removed from the academic fare we serve to our children”(p. 79).  Appleman is not, however, advocating a policy in which, if teachers, superintendents, or parents are in doubt, they should close off student access to such material.  The question, she suggests, is not whether these topics should be taught, but how. 

Part of the problem that Appleman addresses is how history is taught.  She argues that often the push for censorship or banning of books connects to the ways in which those who object consider decontextualized quotes apart from the historical realities in which they were said.  Appleman wonders, “If literature is indeed a reflection of the worldview or life of the author as he or she lived it, doesn’t it seem imperative that we should study the texts from a historical perspective?  Is it reasonable to hold texts written decades, even centuries ago, to 21st century sensibilities and standards?”(p. 84). Without context, how can we understand any utterance in any book? Books can help us know not only who we are, but who we have been and who we hope to become. 

Appleman also speaks of finding a balance, when looking at classic works, between teaching students to think critically and call out misogyny and racism on the one hand, and seeking wisdom, insight, and affirmation from the text on the other hand. Too much focus on a single didactic and judgmental condemnation of the elements of the text that are reflective of the text’s culture may obscure elements of the story that might actually counter offensive elements which first take the critical reader’s attention. As Appleman says, “To reduce a text to a particular set of modern moral values is not only a reductive reading of the text; it also limits as reader’s range of response”(p. 93).

There is more to the book, of course.  Appleman lays out her points methodically and clearly and the space I have in this review can only at best give you a taste of that.  Appleman argues that the root of the problem we are experiencing with censorship is an erosion of trust – in teachers, in librarians, in books and even in education itself.  “Perhaps in the end,” she says, “what we need to trust in is what education can and should be…trust in the reciprocal act of teaching and learning, trust in the ability of teachers to navigate their students through difficult waters, and trust in the kinds of rich pedagogical strategies we have collectively created. Perhaps, most importantly, we need to trust our students to be able to learn to read words and worlds through a critical eye….Perhaps what these troubled times need is for us to continue teaching texts, and trouble the ideologies transcribed therein, rather than cancel or banish them.  Our students deserve no less“(p. 141).  

The argument that Appleman makes in this book is a very persuasive one.  While I don’t think (or even hope) that every reader would come away from this book having reached the same conclusions that Appleman does, I think it would be nearly impossible to read this book and not consider with far more care both how we read and why we read.  And that is, at least in part, what reading is for. 

William Boerman-Cornell

Bill Boerman-Cornell is a professor of Education at Trinity Christian College.  He is the co-author most recently of Young Adult Literature and Spirituality: How to Unlock Deeper Understanding with Class Discussion.


  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    During my Christian h.s. teaching days, one of my years included Of Mice and Men in the curriculum. At that time, portrayal and treatment of Lennie was not an issue (but was discussed)—what needed attention was the profanity used by the characters. We spent several days discussing profanity in general as well as in the book, an exercise in hermeneutics if you will: what is it? what does it mean? why is it said? who says it? what is the context? etc etc. My rough sophomore boys admitted they (and their parents!) succumbed to profanity —and now with critical understanding of why, with some reflection and understanding of its use in the book. One student suggested George used profanity as a crying out to God, because he didn’t have the words or knowledge for prayer (!). I got some phone calls that week— all of them positive or at least thanks for the discussion. “My kid never talks about school, always hated reading, until now.”
    Short lived glory as a young teacher, because a subsequent year while studying Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, we were subjected to challenge (he has a description of Hasidic mysticism which a group suggested was New Age and dangerous for their kids to read); that somehow drifted into a heresy trial for Madeleine L’Engle (I proposed one of her novels as a substitute for The Chosen, for one student). All a preface to a period later of fear and loathing of Harry Potter for our middle-schoolers. Culture wars indeed.

  • Karl VanDyke says:

    I find it curious, to separate books from everything else kids see and hear every day with no adult knowledge. How many of the “book banners” have read the books or been exposed to social media containing far more objectionable material? As for swearing, it is so prevalent as to have lost all meaning. Words that I cringed at when young are just adjectives with no moral weight according to my grandson.

    Yes, the world is “headed to hell in a handbasket,” whatever a handbasket is, and has been throughout my longish life. I cannot see how my grandchildren can handle what the world throws at them, any more than grandparents from ages past could for their grandchildren.

    Yet the church continues for over 2000 years with the unchanging message of Jesus as Lord and Saviour of a broken world.

  • Caleb Lagerwey says:

    A fantastic review of what seems to be a fantastic book. I particularly appreciated the theme of trust, which seems to connect really well to the aforementioned and deeply misguided idea that any book with objectionable content can be easily replaced by more anodyne alternatives (often regardless of quality). Speaking from experience, we definitely need more trust in our educators to be able to discern and evaluate the ineffable qualities of particular pieces of quality literature.