Jesusland?: Bible Belt Raises Welt of Corporal Punishment

“Jesusland” by Ben Folds includes a powerful verse against the energetic piano and soaring harmonies:

Town to town
broadcast to each house, they drop your name
but no one knows your face
Billboards quoting things you’d never say
you hang your head and pray

While the music and rhythm sound uplifting, the message of the lyrics is a sharp criticism of the Bible Belt, where I grew up, where I live. Folds confronting the disconnect between the ideology found in the words of Jesus in the Bible and then how Christians have manipulated those words and ideals for justifications significantly not Christ-like sits in a long tradition including Thomas Jefferson stating that he believed everything said by Jesus but little said about him (and revising his own version of the Bible to reflect that stance):

Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian. (To Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse Monticello, June 26, 1822)

To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, May 21, 1803)

I was born and then have lived all of my 53 years in the South, the upstate of South Carolina, a stark example of a Bible Belt state where fundamentalist Christianity is blended seamlessly and unselfconsciously with rabid state’s-rights commitments and fervent patriotism as a veneer for a solid faith in the free market.

I have labeled my home region of the U.S. the self-defeating South because these often contradictory ideologies not only have created scars on our history but also continue to leave us in a constant state of being battered and bruised, especially children, women, and people of color.

My South has often used and still uses the Bible as a weapon.

My South raised the Bible in defense of slavery.

My South outlawed interracial marriage while waving the Bible.

My South fought the integration of schools, including whites shouting hate and scripture at children being escorting into Little Rock Central.

My South remains the primary region—the Bible Belt—where children are legally subject to corporal punishment not only in their homes but also in their public schools.

Like the angry white Christians shouting hate and their narrow faith at the Little Rock Nine, “Spare the rod, spoil the child” quickly follows the defenses of corporal punishment as the topics of domestic violence and child abuse have been spurred by controversies surrounding NFL players.

As Larry Morrison details about Biblical arguments for slavery—”The emphasis from proslavery defenders was always upon a literal reading of the Bible which represented the mind and will of God himself” (p. 16)—so too are Biblical arguments for spanking children.

Unlike me, Kurt Vonnegut was born and raised in the Midwest. In his collection Palm Sunday, Vonnegut confessed, “Toward the end of our marriage, it was mainly religion in a broad sense that Jane and I fought about” (p. 175).

And then Vonnegut—as he often did—shared his upbringing as a Free Thinker, leading to his casual references to himself as an atheist or agnostic. In a speech delivered at Hobart and William Smith College (May 26, 1974), Vonnegut explained:

So a modern, secular education is often painful. By its very nature, it invites us to question the wisdom of the ones we love….

I have said that one guess is as good as another, but that is only roughly so. Some guesses are crueler than others—which is to say, harder on human beings, and on other animals as well….

But it is reasonable to suppose that other bad guesses are poisoning our lives today. A good education in skepticism can help us to discover those bad guesses, and to destroy them with mockery and contempt. (pp. 178-179)

Vonnegut as Free Thinker recognized that “bad guesses” were often most corrosive when linked to the Word of God; therefore, he called for “a new religion” (p. 181)—necessary to combat “hypocrisy”:

I am willing to drop the word religion, and substitute for it these three words: heartfelt moral code….The trouble with so many of the moral codes we have inherited is that they are subject to so many interpretations….This is good news for hypocrites, who enjoy feeling pious, no matter what they do. (p. 184)

Vonnegut in this speech focused on the tragedies of continuous war and rampant consumerism to the expense of the survival of humans—concluding as only Vonnegut could about the need “to do whatever we need to do in order to have life on the planet go on for a long, long time”:

This is bad news for business, as we know it now. It should be thrilling news for persons who love to teach and lead. And thank God we have solid information in the place of superstition! Thank God we are beginning to dream of human communities which are designed to harmonize with what human beings really need and are.

And now you have just heard and atheist thank God not once, but twice. And listen to this:

God bless the class of 1974. (p. 191)

In 1974, I didn’t know about Vonnegut, but I was on the cusp of two important realizations of my life: the need “to question the wisdom of the ones we love” (my parents and community) and my own aversion to the hypocrisy of the Bible Belt I called home.

A decade later, 1984, I was teaching English in the high school I had attended, in the classroom where my favorite teacher, Lynn Harrill, had taught before moving on to administration. And then, about another decade later, my students—most of whom attended the Southern Baptist church that sat literally in the middle of the district’s four public schools—joined the national fad of wearing What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) bracelets and T-shirts.

Teaching public school in the Bible Belt throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I can attest that religion was never absent from school, including prayers still be announced each morning over the intercom.

The WWJD movement highlighted for me, however, how in the South superficial religiosity trumps any genuine heartfelt moral code, as Vonnegut called it. Students leading lives that were in fact not Christ-like were the most fervent about the WWJD paraphernalia, creating a great deal of tension with students who were acting Christ-like (in many ways) but not calling attention to it.

Two things remain with me about those years teaching, watching young people too often slip comfortably into the hypocrisy of the Bible Belt (something about which I blame the adults, and not those students).

First, and ironically, the WWJD merchandising was an accurate portrayal of commitments in the U.S. to the market, to consumerism over all else (especially ethics).

And second, what a wasted moment.

Like Vonnegut and Jefferson, I too am comfortable with embracing a world in which humans behave in ways that are Christ-like:

You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matthew 5: 38-39)

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)

Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:24)

I have a Who Would Jesus Bomb bumper sticker on a file cabinet in my office, and am certain that if this guided our policy in the U.S., we’d be a much better people.

It is 2014, 40 years since Vonnegut’s essentially optimistic speech.

I fear I cannot share his optimism, having slipped from the healthy skepticism Vonnegut endorsed into a solid cynicism.

As I have written about and raised in my classes my strong stance against all corporal punishment, based on decades of solid research, I have been bombarded with “My parents spanked me, and I turned out OK” as well as the expected refrain: “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”

All while I lie down each night still living in Jesusland, the Bible Belt where we endorse teaching children lessons with fear and pain.

I am left to muse as Vonnegut did four decades ago, but I think about Who Would Jesus Spank and simply cannot find a credible answer other than not a single child.

“Human dignity,” Vonnegut offered in a 1980 speech at the First Parish Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “must be given by people to people”:

If you stand before me, and I do not credit you with dignity, then you have none. If I stand before you, and you do not credit me with dignity, then I have none….

What could be more essential in a pluralistic society like ours than that every citizen see dignity in every other human being everywhere? (p. 194)

I can’t imagine anything different uttered by Jesus, and I can only add, including children.

So it goes.

Misguided Reading Policy Creates Wrong Lessons for Students as Writers

Having taught writing to teenagers and young adults at the high school and undergraduate levels for over thirty years now, I have a standard approach to the first few classes: We identify and then unpack and challenge the lessons the students have learned about writing.

For these foundational lessons to work, however, I have to gain the trust of my students so that they are open and honest about the real lessons (or more accurately framed as “rules” they have conformed to implementing). One of the best moments in this process is when I very carefully ask them to explain to me how they decide when to use commas.

Usually someone is willing to confess: “I put commas when I pause.” And then I ask who else uses that strategy, and essentially every time most, if not all, of the students raise their hands.

Next, I help them trace just how this completely flawed rule entered into their toolbox as writers. I note that when they were first learning to read, especially when they were being taught to read aloud, teachers in the first, second, and third grades likely stressed how we pause slightly at commas and a bit more at periods when reading aloud.

Students usually nod their heads, recalling those early lessons, and even specific teachers.

The next part is tricky and really important. Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, then, students receive a good deal of direct grammar instruction, often framed as rules (although this is a key problem of such instruction), often done in isolation (the ultimate fatal flaw of grammar instruction), and almost universally offered well before students have reached the level of abstract reasoning (brain development) necessary to understand how grammar works as a system [1].

Throughout most of my teaching career at the high school level, students were issued a traditional grammar text (Warriner’s [2]), and in that text, commas had an entire chapter and something like 47 rules. Since most students were uninterested, unmotivated, and incapable of understanding all that dense information on commas, they simply did what most humans would do—fabricate something they could manage from the information they understood.

Thus many students flip a reading aloud guideline that associates commas with pausing into a horribly inadequate “rule” for punctuating sentences.

As a teacher of writing, then, I am vividly aware of how we have traditionally mislead students with both our reading and our writing policies, significantly grounded in prescriptive and mechanistic approaches to language—approaches that teach the wrong lessons and do more harm than good.

That awareness leads me to recognize that the current Common Core movement is likely to increase that problem, not address the need to implement effective and thoughtful reading and writing policy.

For one example is the concern raised in Common Core calls for kids to read books that ‘frustrate’ them. Is that a good idea? by Russ Walsh:

The Common Core, in its pursuit of “college and career readiness,” calls for ramping up the complexity of texts read by children in all grades after second grade. Some reading educators, including University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Tim Shanahan, have argued that this means we should not be focused on having students read in texts at their instructional level, but in texts that are at their frustration level.

This call for students reading at the “frustration level,” sadly, is nothing knew.

Student have typically been required to read texts that don’t match either their language development or their background or perceptions of existence—works that are to them needlessly complex and difficult simply to comprehend (much less interpret).

Take for example nearly any student reading Shakespeare or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Setting aside that plays were never intended to be read texts, both of these works are variations of English so far removed from contemporary students that (just as they have done with comma/pausing rules) they decide that all good writing must be impenetrable—arcane words, labyrinthine sentences.

As a result, when I stress that good writing must be specific, concrete, coherent, and above all else clear, students are baffled.

Common Core, again, appears to me nothing new; as I have noted “close reading” is New Criticism repackaged. But I do fear that calls for students reading at frustration levels are likely to perpetuate the very worst of traditional reading policies and practices.

Reading and writing are the core of all learning, and as such, we should take much greater care that our reading and writing policy is grounded in healthy and effective approaches to literacy. We must also recognize that our reading practices feed our writing practices.

As has been all too common in formal schooling, Common Core appears poised to once again drive misguided reading policy that will teach our students the wrong lessons as young writers.

And if nothing else, that puts me at a constant frustration level.

[1] See Ann L. Warner’s “If the Shoe No Longer Fits, Wear It Anyway?” English Journal, (September 1993):

Why Do Students Not Retain Knowledge of Grammar?

We English teachers must ask ourselves why students do not retain what they learn about grammar. Is it because we don’t hold them accountable for it? Are high-school teachers right to complain that they shouldn’t have to teach grammar because their students should already know it? Or is it possible that students don’t retain this knowledge because they aren’t intellectually ready to understand it before high school? Are the linguistic concepts of grammar too abstract for younger students?Jean Piaget, Laurence Kohlberg, and other psychologists maintain that individuals experience sequential levels of cognitive development. Some studies suggest that only about half the adolescent and adult population reaches the highest levels of formal operational thinking (Reimer 1983, 37)—which may well be the level of abstraction required to grasp the fundamentals of traditional English grammar. Jean Sanborn, in her article “Grammar: Good Wine Before Its Time,” maintains that “The study of grammar, of the ‘rules,’ belongs at the end of this process of linguistic development…” (1986, 77).

Tate Hudson’s dissertation work, reported briefly in “Great, No, Realistic Expectations: Grammar and Cognitive Levels” (1987), confirms Sanborn’s position. In her research, Hudson found that failure rates on grammar tests were dramatically higher for students not yet functioning at the abstract or formal stage of development. Only fourteen percent of the middle-school students she tested were at the stage of formal operations.

Perhaps the reason many students don’t retain grammar information is because they can’t. Ironically, the least verbally capable students are often the ones subjected to the most grammar instruction.

[2] I recommend instead Style, Joseph Williams

Banned in the U.S.A.

When students come to my university office for the first time, they typically utter, “You have a lot of books,” followed by noting the clutter.

For those students, they cannot see the lineage I can now recognize: Go, Dog. Go!, Green Eggs and Ham, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, 7000 Marvel comic books, Arthur C. Clarke, and then that day in my high school sophomore English teacher’s classroom during break.

In the mid- and late-1970s, I was a so-called good student, making mostly As and some Bs, but I considered myself solidly a math and science student, planning upon graduation to major in physics in college. Sitting in my English teacher’s room during breaks, we would talk. On one occasion when I was a tenth grader, Mr. Harrill began recommending that I read real literature, and not the science fiction (SF) I was consuming at high rates.

Since he knew my parents and what they allowed me to read, he nudged me toward D.H. Lawrence—and thus my transition to literary fiction began.

During those same formative years in my teens, my mother and her family had introduced me to The Firesign Theatre, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor.

It was books and comedians, then, who have been and continue to be banned that who I am was built on—the reason I have an office packed with books (and even more on shelves at home, and even more stacked here and there waiting to be read since I buy at a rate with which I cannot keep pace) and write every day.

So during Banned Book Week 2014, I am compelled to recall some of my experiences with books being challenged during my 18 years as a public high school English teacher in rural South Carolina.

Likely my first experience came relatively early in my career when I taught American literature to advanced sophomores tracking into Advanced Placement. I was deeply into John Gardner and learning to write myself so I assigned Gardner’s Grendel.

This was a powerful learning experience because it combined a young and idealistic teacher, bright and excited students, the power of a few angry parents, and the essentially conservative nature of public school administration.

Several years later, when I was English department chair, we revisited our required reading list, seeking ways to add female and minority authors to the Old White Male canon. We did add Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, to be taught primarily by our African American female teacher in the department.

The first time we assigned Hurston’s classic, a challenge was submitted by a parent, a parent who was a leader of a local KKK chapter. It wasn’t difficult to see through the challenge to the ugliness driving the complaint, but nonetheless, this challenge also exposed the power of parents despite their lack of credibility in traditional schooling.

And my final example of the threat of censorship while I was teaching remains the most troubling since the school’s own librarian considered challenging my use of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple in my AP Literature course for seniors, a course her child was scheduled to take the next year. Again, the concerns were being raised by the librarian, who argued with me that the work wasn’t literature despite her own library shelves holding several books of criticism addressing The Color Purple as just as credible as the so-called classics (again, mostly authored by Old White Men).

Censorship to shield children. Censorship as a weapon of racism. Censorship as a conservative ideal.

I must add here that censorship is even more insidious and pervasive in our public schools in the form of self-censorship—teachers seeking works that will not cause complaints and avoiding works that may be controversial.

So banned in the U.S.A. remains powerful often in forms that are mostly invisible, mostly part of the norm feared by Ray Bradbury and dramatized in his Fahrenheit 451.

In the 60th anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451, several of Bradbury’s essays (and a brilliant introduction by Neil Gaiman) are included, one of which notes: “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches” (p. 209).

Like Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut and Sherman Alexie have confronted the power of censorship as well as the misguided desire of a free people to ban not just books, but ideas.

ban2

Vonnegut’s letter to those who sought to ban his work explains:

If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

Alexie’s powerful Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood builds to his personal defense of books:

And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.

As a lover of books, as a writer, and as a life-long teacher, I am indebted to my childhood and teenage freedom to read, to listen to, and to consider ideas other than the ones endorsed by my home, my community, and my school.

George Carlin and Richard Pryor talked about the world in ways that my parents, my peers, and my community never did; they both praised Muhammad Ali with language both profane and poetic as was fitting for their comedy and for Ali’s own bravado against an inequitable world to which he would not bend a knee—a quality admirable and shared among Ali, Carlin, and Pryor.

“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” Franz Kafka wrote in his Letter to Oskar Pollak 1904.

Books are sacred because ideas are sacred, or must be if a people truly seeks to be free. Talking about Fahrenheit 451 in 1993, Bradbury said, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

Banning books has no place in a free society, but each time we remain passive, allowing a book to be silenced, we are “running about with lit matches.”

Preserving access to all books for all people, especially children, is at the core of our humanity because the only dangerous idea is the one not allowed.

Market Ethics No Ethics at All

In the wake of this country’s premier professional sports league fumbling several cases of domestic violence by its players, one high-profile player has become the focus of equally disturbing cases of child abuse.

While the league and teams struggled with concerns about due process—deactivating, reactivating, and then deactivating again the player in the child abuse scandal—women and children bruised, battered, and knocked unconscious have more or less faded from the country’s conscience, despite gruesome video and photographs as artifacts of violence spreading from the playing field into the lives of professional athletes and the people they claim to love.

At the core of when and why this league and the teams take actions against a wide range of violent behavior—bullying, domestic violence, child abuse—not confined to real and artificial grass neatly divided into carefully measured gradients of 5 yards by 53 yards appears to be one single rule of thumb: Market ethics.

Owners and leaders in this league seem driven by the dynamic between public opinion (primarily the customers) and damage done to the brand.

While one team stood before cameras juggling their ineptitude in the face of graphic photographs and repeated player confessions of his actions taken as so-called discipline of a four-year-old child, that team’s sponsors watched their logos prominent in the background, and then a major hotel chain, a major fast-food restaurant, and a major beer producer (known itself for blanketing that major sport’s telecasts with sanctimonious advertisements begging viewers to drink their beer but no-no-no on drinking and driving) began to offer the team’s owners the moral clarity they had been missing all along.

The hotel chain dropped their sponsorship and the other sponsors have made public statements denouncing child abuse as not consistent with their corporate philosophy (at least that is comforting, right?).

And there the people of this country stand, facing the power of market ethics in a society bound to the dollar above all else.

Battered women, knocked unconscious, and children scarred at the hands of grown professional athletes—please wait while we check with our sponsors.

If your personal terror somehow tarnishes our shield, tarnishes our brand, then just you see our moral outrage.

We’ll start a campaign, we’ll release statements sternly worded (but tempered by our lawyers), and we’ll donate money to the right causes because the market has spoken and we now know where the lines are.

Yes, we can hire gigantic and athletic men to batter the hell out of each other for everyone else to watch—some permanently disabled, their brains rattled to the point of no return.

But we get it now: When the same men hit women or children (and video or pictures come to light), we must take a stand because we want everyone to know that the customer is our main concern (or at least those customers’ disposable income, disposable as the athletes themselves and their families left in the carnage of their unbridled violence).

Because in the end, market ethics are no ethics at all.

Spare the Rod, Respect the Child: Abuse Is Not Discipline

As a teenager and then a young adult, I witnessed in two different contexts a powerful and publicly praised adult who was not what he appeared. Particularly when I was a young adult, early in my career, I was able to fully recognize that this person was the embodiment of hypocrisy and was certainly not suited for his role dealing with teens in multiple roles of authority.

While I raised my concerns often, being essentially powerless, I had little impact on this situation.

During the seemingly endless controversies surrounding the NFL in the past year—bullying, domestic abuse, child abuse—I am reminded of those experiences and a central lesson I learned: Those in power on the inside know the truth, but will never admit the truth, and will only confront what they are forced to confront when small moments of truth are revealed.

The domestic abuse video and the child abuse photographs (and admissions) are merely the tip of the iceberg of the essential violence fostered and tolerated by the NFL, a culture of violence that spills over into the lives and families of NFL players beyond the playing field.

And to act as if those on the inside of the NFL are not aware of that iceberg below the surface, below the tip the public sees occasionally is more willful ignorance by the public.

NFL owners know. Coaches knows. NFL bureaucrats know. Teammates know.

But to all involved, the NFL matters more, and collateral damage remains something tolerated, something ignored, something hidden.

This, however, is not an indictment of the NFL only, but that this NFL is a reflection of the U.S. widely, an essentially violent nation that has little regard for the dignity and safety of our children.

And thus we have NFL leaders speaking on Adrian Peterson’s behalf, calling for his right to due process—despite photographs capturing abuse and despite Peterson’s own admissions about his actions, admissions that include:

I have to live with the fact that when I disciplined my son the way I was disciplined as a child, I caused an injury that I never intended or thought would happen. I know that many people disagree with the way I disciplined my child.

I know Peterson has been handled, that these public statements have been vetted and manipulated, but I also know that no amount of framing his actions as “discipline” can mask that his actions are abuse.

Just as there is no justification for a powerful and athletic man to hit his spouse or partner, knocking her unconscious, there is no justification for an adult hitting a child. None.

I must stress here that I am also not only condemning Peterson and his actions (although I strongly condemn those specific action) because Peterson’s attitude and behavior are being replicated across the U.S. daily, justified as the rights of parents, justified by Biblical scripture.

Corporal punishment remains allowed in schools in more than a third of the U.S., in fact.

Hitting children remains a cultural norm of not only the home but the state.

Hitting children (distinct from domestic violence) is framed as a debate [1]—while we seem not to concede credibility to those endorsing husbands hitting their wives, we do allow those advocating spanking children credibility.

And that calls into question not just the NFL, but our entire nation, our cultural norms that appear mostly negligent about the safety and health of our children—the least powerful beings in our democracy.

Just as we continue to embrace grade retention despite decades of research showing it is harmful to children—again allowing the topic to be framed as a debate—we are no better than the powers that be in the NFL who certainly know about the iceberg below the surface that we also willfully ignore because we not only turn a blind eye to child abuse in the form of corporal punishment, we pretend that the research doesn’t exit—research from the APA that concludes:

“Until researchers, clinicians, and parents can definitively demonstrate the presence of positive effects of corporal punishment, including effectiveness in halting future misbehavior, not just the absence of negative effects, we as psychologists can not responsibly recommend its use,” Gershoff writes.

The U.S. is a violent nation and our national sport is the extension of our violent selves, a people not overly concerned about the weak, the powerless, the frail.

In Raising Arizona, H.I. laments, “Sometimes it’s a hard world for small things.” While this is true, it appears it remains upon us, the adults, to make sure in every way we can control that the world doesn’t have to be so.

Our response to Adrian Peterson must be that we are not simply disagreeing with him about his choices involving his children; we see abuse where he is unable to recognize it, unable to admit it.

It simply isn’t any parent’s right to decide about abuse. To call it “discipline” and to claim no intent do not matter.

But it would be adding insult to injury even if we take a stand against Peterson (although it appears we won’t) without taking a much wider stance against any form of physical abuse of children.

Ultimately, the only clear line we must take is zero tolerance for corporal punishment.

[1] Consider how we seem to ignore the significant danger tobacco smoke poses to children, highlighted by how rare bans on smoking with children in the care remain in the U.S. Laws prohibit children buying cigarettes, but because of parental rights, children must suffer second-hand smoke in cars and homes.

See Also

On Spanking and Abuse, Charles Blow

What Science Says About Using Physical Force To Punish A Child

However, there is overwhelming evidence that physical punishment is both ineffective and harmful to child development. Former HuffPost Senior Columnist Lisa Belkin has argued that the word “debate” should be left out of the spanking conversation, because the science against it is so clearly one-sided.

“There aren’t two sides. There is a preponderance of fact, and there are people who find it inconvenient to accept those facts,” Belkin wrote in a 2012 column.

Adrian Peterson and what our fathers did to us: we have not turned out fine

19 states still allow corporal punishment in school

Stephen King: On Teaching

My life as a reader and film goer overlapped significantly with Stephen King’s rise to fame as a horror writer, and then while I was teaching in the summer institute for a regional National Writing Project (Spartanburg Writing Project), we assigned King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

I have recently reconnected with King through his Doctor Sleep (see my review) and Mr. Mercedes. But thanks to Jessica Lahey’s How Stephen King Teaches Writing, I have been drawn back into King as not just a writer’s writer, but also a teacher.

As an article at The Guardian suggests, please read the whole interview, but I want here to highlight a few points.

On teaching grammar:

Jessica Lahey: You write that you taught grammar “successfully.” How did you define “success” when you were teaching?

Stephen King: Success is keeping the students’ attention to start with, and then getting them to see that most of the rules are fairly simple. I always started by telling them not to be too concerned with stuff like weird verbs (swim, swum, swam) and just remember to make subject and verb agree. It’s like we say in AA—KISS. Keep it simple, stupid….

Lahey: You write, “One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not.” If this is true, why teach grammar in school at all? Why bother to name the parts?

King: When we name the parts, we take away the mystery and turn writing into a problem that can be solved. I used to tell them that if you could put together a model car or assemble a piece of furniture from directions, you could write a sentence. Reading is the key, though. A kid who grows up hearing “It don’t matter to me” can only learn doesn’t if he/she reads it over and over again.

The discussion of teaching writing has never and can never stray too far from the G word so I am always compelled by the urge to dive right into grammar when anyone discusses teaching writing (see Why Are We (Still) Failing Writing Instruction? and More on Failing Writing, and Students; see also the work of Lou LaBrant). King’s comments here and his role as a teacher of writing, I think, help highlight the power of teaching writing by those who have authoritative stances as writers themselves.

On favorite works to teach:

Lahey: When people ask me to name my favorite books, I have to ask them to narrow their request: to read or to teach? You provide a fantastic list of books to read at the end of On Writing, but what were your favorite books to teach, and why?

King: When it comes to literature, the best luck I ever had with high school students was teaching James Dickey’s long poem “Falling.” It’s about a stewardess who’s sucked out of a plane. They see at once that it’s an extended metaphor for life itself, from the cradle to the grave, and they like the rich language. I had good success with The Lord of the Flies and short stories like “Big Blonde” and “The Lottery.” (They argued the shit out of that one—I’m smiling just thinking about it.) No one puts a grammar book on their list of riveting reads, but The Elements of Style is still a good handbook. The kids accept it.

For nearly two decades, I anchored my poetry unit for high students with the songs of R.E.M. and the poetry of James Dickey; I was thrilled to see King mention Dickey’s “Failling.” See R.E.M./Dickey poems lessons here, and I recommend highly Dickey’s “A Dog Sleeping on My Feet,” “Cherrylog Road,” “For the Last Wolverine,” “The Heaven of Animals,” “The Hospital Window,” “The Lifeguard,” and “The Performance.”

On diagramming sentences:

Lahey: While I love teaching grammar, I am conflicted on the utility of sentence diagramming. Did you teach diagramming, and if so, why?

King: I did teach it, always beginning by saying, “This is for fun, like solving a crossword puzzle or a Rubik’s Cube.” I told them to approach it as a game. I gave them sentences to diagram as homework but promised I would not test on it, and I never did. Do you really teach diagramming? Good for you! I didn’t think anyone did anymore.

As I have addressed recently, like discussions of teaching grammar, debates about diagramming sentences seem to recur—notably in a recent NPR piece. I think King here finds a way to make diagramming less controversial, posing it as one avenue to playing with language. In my work on writers—Barbara Kingsolver, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin—I have noticed a consistent pattern of word play among those who are drawn to reading and writing.

On conferencing with students as writers:

Lahey: By extension, how can writing teachers help students recognize which words are required in their own writing?

King: Always ask the student writer, “What do you want to say?” Every sentence that answers that question is part of the essay or story. Every sentence that does not needs to go. I don’t think it’s the words per se, it’s the sentences. I used to give them a choice, sometimes: either write 400 words on “My Mother is Horrible” or “My Mother is Wonderful.” Make every sentence about your choice. That means leaving your dad and your snotty little brother out of it.

Over my thirty-plus years teaching writing primarily to high school students and undergraduates, I have come to mark far less of student essays (about the first third with track-changes and comments focusing on prompting revision) and depending much more on conferences. In my conferences, I always start with “What were you trying to accomplish or say in this?” And then we can begin to discuss how they have or have not met those goals (ones they can often say aloud but cannot bring to fruition as well in their writing).

On writing without fear:

Lahey: You extol the benefits of writing first drafts with the door closed, but students are often so focused on giving teachers what they want and afraid of making mistakes that they become paralyzed. How can teachers encourage kids to close the door and write without fear?

King: In a class situation, this is very, very hard. That fearlessness always comes when a kid is writing for himself, and almost never when doing directed writing for the grade (unless you get one of those rare fearless kids who’s totally confident). The best thing—maybe the only thing—is to tell the student that telling the truth is the most important thing, much more important than the grammar. I would say, “The truth is always eloquent.” To which they would respond, “Mr. King, what does eloquent mean?”

This is extremely important and speaks against the inordinate amount of writing students do to someone else’s prompts (and even someone else’s nearly entirely prescribed content and scripted form). King also challenges the use of grades, and recognizes how harmful grads are to coming to be a writer. If students are to become writers, they must be allowed to make the sorts of decisions writers make and then produce the sorts of authentic forms writers produce.

On what students should read:

Lahey: English teachers tend to fall into one of two camps when it comes to literacy: Those who believe we should let students read anything they want so they will be more likely to engage with books, and those who believe teachers should push kids to read more challenging texts in order to expose them to new vocabulary, genres, and ideas. Where would you pitch your tent?

King: You don’t want to leave them in despair, which is why it’s such a horrible idea to try teaching Moby-Dick or Dubliners to high school juniors. Even the bright ones lose heart. But it’s good to make them reach a little. They’ve got to see there are brighter literary worlds than Twilight. Reading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex.

Choice is not only important for learning to write, but also for reading, and here King examines perfectly the delicate balance of in-school reading—fostering a love of reading that includes choice and attaining a sophistication about text that comes from reading more complex and challenging works—especially as that is guided by an expert reader (the teacher).

On teaching as craft or art:

Lahey: You refer to writing as a craft rather than an art. What about teaching? Craft, or art?

King: It’s both. The best teachers are artists.

The interview ends perfectly, I think, with these words from King.

Buying the Academy, Good-Bye Scholarship

Higher education is facing difficult economic circumstances. While many are confronting how universities can remain both relevant and financially stable, few are admitting that a huge problem is not a lack of money, but the lure of money—billionaires buying university departments with powerful strings attached.

In my books on school choice and poverty, I have addressed the powerful and misguided roles that the media and think tanks have played in public educational discourse and policy. One example highlights the warning offered by Gerald Bracey:

That is where we currently stand in the school choice advocacy discourse that drives a substantial part of the new reformers’ plans. The newest talking points are “do no harm” and that people opposing vouchers want to deny choice to people living in poverty. And throughout the school choice debate, ironically, the choice advocates shift back and forth about the validity of the research—think tank reports that are pro-choice and the leading school choice researchers tend to avoid peer-review and rail against peer-reviews (usually charging that the reviews are ideological and driven by their funding) while simultaneously using terms such as “objective,” “empirical,” and “econometrics” to give their reports and arguments the appearance of scholarship.

But, if anyone makes any effort to scratch beneath the surface of school choice advocacy reports, she/he will find some telling details:

“In education, readers should beware of research emanating from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Mackinac Center, the Center for Education Reform, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Paul Peterson group at Harvard, and, soon, the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Arkansas is home to the Walton family, and much Wal-Mart money has already made its way to the University of Arkansas, $300 million in 2002 alone. The new department, to be headed by Jay P. Greene, currently at the Manhattan Institute, will no doubt benefit from the Walton presence. The family’s largesse was estimated to approach $1 billion per year (Hopkins 2004), and before his death in an airplane crash, John Walton was perhaps the nation’s most energetic advocate of school vouchers.” (Bracey, 2006, p. xvi)

I have detailed the problems with the Department of Education Reform (University of Arkansas)—misleading charter advocacy as well as my own experience with being misrepresented in the name of their advocacy.

Now, Valerie Strauss has shared similar concerns about the Charles Koch Foundation’s influence at Florida State University’s economics department; as Dave Levinthal explains:

In 2007, when the Charles Koch Foundation considered giving millions of dollars to Florida State University’s economics department, the offer came with strings attached.

First, the curriculum it funded must align with the libertarian, deregulatory economic philosophy of Charles Koch, the billionaire industrialist and Republican political bankroller.

Second, the Charles Koch Foundation would at least partially control which faculty members Florida State University hired.

And third, Bruce Benson, a prominent libertarian economic theorist and Florida State University economics department chairman, must stay on another three years as department chairman — even though he told his wife he’d step down in 2009 after one three-year term.

Education advocacy is now a very thinly veiled cover for much larger political and economic advocacy: Billionaires are buying the academy to create and maintain their powerful advantages.

One of the few walls protecting us against the tyranny of money has been academic freedom, securely (we thought) behind the wall of tenure.

And thus, while billionaires buy K-12 education and dismantle K-12 tenure and unions (Bill Gates, for example), billionaires are buying the academy and dismantling university tenure.

As we stand by and watch, we should be prepared to wave good-bye to scholarship, good-bye to equity, good-bye to democracy.

Reference

Bracey, G. W. (2006). Reading educational research: How to avoid getting statistically snookered . Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.