Do Schools Teach Subversive Literature to Subvert Its Message?

Inspired by the recent thread on JD Salinger’s death, and in particular, cricetus’s post:

I read Salinger and Orwell in high school, and probably enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye and 1984 more than any other work I was assigned. I have re-read 1984, as well as Fahrenheit 451, and enjoyed them again. I never considered that the books may be taught in school setting as to “co-opt them and undermine their subversive content”, but I find the idea intriguing. I’m not arguing for some smoke filled room in the Dept of Education where members meet to discuss the best way to raise the next generation of “sheeple”. :rolleyes: But why are these novels so popular in high schools across the US? Are Dopers in other countries familiar with the works, and did any of them read them in school? Does the establishment absorb these subversive books into their curriculum in order to neuter the message?

Apologies for not directly linking to the thread; I don’t know how to do that.

How is George Orwell in 1984 and Animal Farm subversive? He might have been regarded as subversive if he wrote and published those in Stalin’s Soviet Union, but anti-totalitarian treatises are hardly subversive in the English-speaking world.

It is an interesting idea. In my own experience, I kind of can’t help feeling like, “Oh, reading or liking these books is so cliched.” Not that I feel that way about people who read them…it’s just that they are such quintessential books of the “high school experience” that whenever I read a book where the character loves Catcher or George Orwell, it just sort of makes me think, “Oooh, corporate idea of someone who loves literature and transgression!”

I think schools teach them because they are very popular books widely considered by many teachers from generations past to be interesting and of academic merit, to a large extent because of fond memories of reading the books in their own time. Nothing more to it than that, though what to the teacher may have once seemed subversive and edgy will, to the students, often eventually seem rote and hoary through standardization as part of the curriculum.

I highly doubt the teachers are sitting around thinking “Man, I really don’t like this book or the ideas in it, but I better inoculate these children to it to mitigate the chances that, later, as adults, they would find it and enjoy it on their own”. I think books generally enter the curriculum through teachers genuinely sincerely admiring them.

Now, that this process may nonetheless have such a stultifying effect is an interesting idea, but just be wary of ascribing intentionality to this.

While much more damaging to a Stalinist Soviet Union, Orwell’s novels are still an indictment of the things that a powerful organization can do, whether it be a liberal democratic or any other government, or even a private entity like a corporation. Not a rock solid cite, but google news has 36 hits for doublethink and 405 for orwellian.

In short, I think it’s fair to consider them subversive literature in light of how they seek to undermine the legitimacy of illiberal government or organizations. While they were originally directed at totalitarianism, they can - and are - used to discuss democratic governments.

And how is Catcher in the Rye subversive?

I agree, particularly with your last point. I find it difficult to ascribe intentionality to some actor or actors involved, but wonder if one can convincingly.

I don’t think that’s the intent, but it can be the effect, yes. Once you give something the stamp of school authority, a lot of teenagers are going to assume it’s lame. They recognize it’s been approved of by someone and deemed a classic, and for those kids, that’s going to rob the book of any subversive power it might have. The result is that literature that may have been subversive decades ago gets co-opted by the establishment. But it’s not a deliberate thing as far as I can tell. I read Catch-22 in high school, and Fahrenheit 451 and Animal Farm, too. The books were all decades old by that point, so we didn’t have the same views on Vietnam or the USSR that the authors and first readers did.

Surely to at least some extent those things aren’t subversive any more, or at least as much? The very point that these books are acceptable in schools, to me, says that they are no longer considered subversive. I would argue that there’s a problem the other way - if we hold up literature which is no longer subversive, or no longer apt for the times, as though it is, then we risk pushing those who do feel there are problems with they way things currently are into ideas that have already been digested and understood by those in power. We’d be giving actually acceptable literature a veneer of danger or effective, new ideals which establishment already know about.

Yeah, this. Don’t underestimate the number of literature teachers who would LOVE to subvert public school mores.

Teaching high school does not pay well. There is more competition for jobs teaching literature than most other subjects. Many lit teachers truly do it for love of literature, and – in keeping with the nature of English grad school in the last 30 years (hint: Marx is still a favorite) – many fervently hope to encourage teenagers to question authority. In an orderly fashion, of course, and preferably not during fifth period, but still.

As pointed out, generally things only enter schools once time has passed.

If the intent was to neutralise, you’d expect to see more of currently subversive literature to show up. Its more a statement that a subjective work has already been neutralised by society if you see it turn up at a school.


That’s the key to neutering the subversion. Everyone basically agrees that there’s some form of government or enemy that would ruin things if they had power. You might as well ask why we teach history when there’s subversive stuff like the American Revolution.

Just can’t win.

If the schools weren’t teaching these type of books they would be ‘censoring’ them, or at least folks would say they were attempting to reduce the number of people exposed to their subversive ideas.

If they do teach them, they are ‘co-opting’ the ideas to make kids think they are lamer than they actually are

You’ve managed to interpret my post as the exact opposite of what it said.

Teaching challenging or subversive literature is a good thing and I don’t think there is any ill intent on the part of schools in putting it on the curriculum. I thought I was saying something very obvious: if a book is taught school, some of the kids are going to think it’s stupid just because it’s being taught in school. That’s how it works with teenagers.

and who is this “establishment” we are talking about? Does a conspiracy of fascist Illuminati, KKK, and Council for Foreign Relations make curriculum decisions nowadays on secondary or tertiary level of education in America? Well, granted, Bush did pass the “No Child Left Behind” thingie, but I don’t think there were any books mentioned in that act.

Last time I checked, the “establishment” that makes decisions about what to study, what to read, and what to ignore is the education establishment. That is, it’s basically same old, same old Marxist academics who got tired of overthrowing capitalism in the 60s and now settled down into academic and/or union sinecures and are now hoping to reshape society by pushing their ideas onto the younger generation (good luck with that, but anyway…).

Incidentally, Orwell would be “anti-establishment” for any lying, totalitarian regime, whether Left or Right. Oh, and FWIW in my high school they didn’t cover him :-). There was Slaughterhouse 5 in middle school though.

Ok, nobody has said this one yet, so: How was Fahrenheit 451 ever subversive? It is about how important books and reading are. Very much the school establishment message.

It’s not my OP, but: it’s a novel where the government spies on people, suppresses information to keep them ignorant, and kills people on a whim or for no particular reason. So there’s that. It’s pro-reading but anti-authoritarian.

Do you have a cite for any numbers relating to this statement?

Cite for Marx ever being a favorite subject for lit study, either in the past or currently?

Do you have a cite for “same old Marxist academics”? For one thing, most of the people who could be considered academics in 1965 would be either dead or retired by now; it was 45 years ago after all. Do you have a cite to show that Marxist academics were ever in control of the curriculum, let alone one that shows their control now?

Or were you just talking out your ass?

Snowboarder Bo, no, I don’t have any cites; it would be tough to do meaningful quantitative analysis of these particular statements. I am speaking from personal anecdotal experience, having worked in the grades 6-12 literature textbook business for a decade, having grown up in a university family and married a grad student (he’s about a month away from handing in his dissertation, yay!), and having had two years of grad school myself in a critical theory program. Jonathan Culler was the best of my theory professors. (Note that he got his undergrad degree in 1966, so if he’s not technically “a person who could be considered [an] academic in 1965,” he has continuity with such people. And he is still teaching, and he’s not of unusual age for a prof.)

Critical theory began as an essentially Marxist project, though hardcore Marxists may not agree (not that hardcore Marxists are known for agreeing, generally speaking). It has evolved to include non-Marxist concerns, but there is still a pervasive Marxist influence.

That’s not to say that all lit profs are really Marxists. As my husband observed, some of them revere certain Marxist ideals, without pausing to question them, while enjoying university appointments endowed by major corporations and successful capitalists.

I’d challenge you to find a literature graduate program in the United States that does not require study of literary critical theory – if there is one, and if it’s any good, I know several people who’d want to apply.

Now, your average education major can avoid most critical theory; I don’t mean that all would-be teachers have to study it. But the literature lovers who turn to teaching high school often do, and that’s who I’m talking about.

Note that for Marxism to be a significant influence in recent literature scholarship and therefore on many literature-focused secondary teachers, “control of the curriculum” by card-carrying Marxists is not required.