On Misreading: The Critical Need to Step Back and See Again

The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees, in every object, only the traits which favor that theory.

Thomas Jefferson to Charles Thompson, 1787

Teaching literature as a high school English teacher often requires covering the canon through survey courses. This means, of course, we teachers of English often assign and discuss writers and works we simply do not like.

One writer I don’t particularly care for is [gasp] Robert Frost—the poems aren’t my cup of tea and his attitude about free verse rubs me the wrong way.

But unlike my ambivalent thoughts about Frost’s poetry and snobbery, I simply detest misreading Frost and those incessant posters:

In fact, one of my favorite, ironically, poems to teach was “The Road Not Taken”—first, because it lends itself to stressing the importance of reading the text carefully to students, and second because many if not most of my students had seen the posters and had the poem mis-taught to them in previous grades.

Typically, the end of the poem is used to make vapid and inspirational claims about being different, taking the path others have failed to try.

However, even a slightly careful reading of the poem reveals that the text itself no fewer than three times states the two roads are essentially the same: “as just as fair,” “Had worn them really about the same,” and “And both that morning equally lay.”

So when I came across Stephen Lynch’s article on David Orr’s The Road Not Taken, I was nearly giddy:

The poem is praised as an ode of individuality, to not follow the pack even though the path may be more difficult.

Except Frost notes early in the poem that the two roads were “worn . . . really about the same.” There is no difference. It’s only later, when the narrator recounts this moment, that he says he took the road less traveled.

“This is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us, or allotted to us by chance),” Orr writes.

“The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism,” he continues. “It’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives.”

And thus we are forced to confront the Jefferson quote above: many in the U.S. see a message of rugged individualism in everything they see regardless of that theme existing or evidence confirming that ideology.

If this were confined to poetry, we could simply let it lie, but consider two aspects of Ronald Reagan’s political career—long enough in the past to view somewhat dispassionately but recent enough to remain relevant during the 2015-2016 presidential campaign years.

Reagan gained a tremendous amount of political capital on his “welfare queen” refrain, and somehow maintained his Teflon image despite George H.W. Bush’s charge that Reaganomics was “voodoo economics.”

Both can be traced to the public’s tendency to see what they want to see despite evidence to the contrary. The U.S. public believes poverty is the result of laziness and continue to harbor racist associations with both poverty and that laziness. As I have shared, just recently I received a negative response to a piece I wrote on racism that blamed inequity on single black mothers, despite single white mothers far outnumbering and Hispanic/Latino single mothers surpassing single black mothers.

The Great American Myth includes that the wealthy have earned their wealthy, the poor (lazy) deserve their poverty, education is the great equalizer, and anybody can succeed if he/she would just work hard enough, and evidence (the abundance of evidence) to the contrary is nearly worthless against that mythology.

This is not simply about partisan politics—because the same proclivity to see what we believe and thus not recognize systemic forces corrupts mainstream efforts at both education reform and daily teaching.

Just as a few examples, policies and practices built on “grit” research and narratives as well as “growth mindset” are essentially flawed because they fall victim to gazing on the individual, diagnosing deficits, and then correcting those deficits—a misdiagnosis that misread the consequences of systemic inequity as individual culpability.

The harsh reality is that in the U.S. educational and social/economic success are the result not of effort or merit, but the coincidence of any person’s socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.

Claims that teaching poor and black/brown children “grit” and a “growth mindset” will reap great rewards for those students are trapped in the deficit gaze narrowly on individuals—not unlike those who misread Frost or continue to cling to Reagan’s nasty “welfare queen” scapegoat.

This is where the critical imperative requires that we always step back from our belief systems and force ourselves to consider the entire and complex reality driven by both systemic and individual dynamics.

So if we loop back to the actual woman Reagan used to create the “welfare queen” smear campaign on all single black mothers who are poor, we discover a very complicated reality about this individual woman, but we also must temper ourselves against drawing sweeping generalizations that are not supported by easily accessible evidence.

And we should also ask why many are apt to make such damning jumps from one black woman to all black women when those same people do not make such leaps about individual serial killers, often white males who are well educated.

It is a trivial nerd/teacher fantasy to hope that we stop the misreading of a rather boring Robert Frost poem, but it is no small thing to expect us to stop allowing claims that are at their core racist and classist (“grit,” “growth mindset,” the “word gap,” etc.) to hide behind the mask of science or the cult of celebrity driving them, it is no small thing to speak against presidential candidates who continue to race-bait (black-on-black crime) and poverty-bait (dead-beats on welfare) the public as Reagan did.

To do so, we must have the courage to choose a road “less traveled by,” a journey that begins with taking one step back.

Please View (and Listen)

James Baldwin and Black Lives, Eddie Glaude

The Legacy of James Baldwin

4 thoughts on “On Misreading: The Critical Need to Step Back and See Again

  1. My own experience is the tale of two brothers born in poverty to parents who never finished high school. The father was a heavy smoker, an alcoholic and a professional gambler who worked in construction to earn enough to pay the monthly mortgage and buy food to feed his family that never went hungry.

    On the road of life that reaches intersections with so many choices, the older brother turned left because he felt like it and for no better reason, and the younger—making no rational choices on his own—happened to, due to different circumstances mostly outside of his control, turned right. By the way, using left and right has nothing to do with political or religious thinking.

    The older brother never learned to read thanks to his severe dyslexia and parents who didn’t fight hard enough for his literacy. He’d end up spending 15 years of his life in prison, and lived mostly in poverty all of his life working hard labor poverty wage jobs–much harder than those poverty wage jobs offered by Walmart that usually means food stamps or starve. Near his death at 64, a heavy drinker and smoker; a broken man with many health problems, the older brother proudly said he never collected welfare during his life.

    The younger brother, also born with severe dyslexia twelve years later than brother #1, was taught to read against the odds and him by his mother. Although their parents were high school dropouts, they were literate and both avid readers with broken hearts from seeing the older brother in prison at age 19. The younger brother became an avid reader too and barely graduated from high school. Then on a whim without much thought, he joined the Marines and had discipline beat into him, fought in a war based on lies, and returned home to go to college on the GI Bill. In college, the younger brother earned a BA in journalism and then an MFA in writing. He became a public school teacher who worked 60 to 100 hours a week for thirty years where he learned to hate and despise the greedy, power hungry, blind, corporate educatoin RheeFormers responsible for making his job as a teacher much more difficult than it had to be.

    The younger brother, based on the hard life of his older brother and his own experience with random choices through life, thinks literacy is an important key to becoming a life-long learner. To achieve that he thinks high stakes testing must go, and a national early childhood education program must start. But not in the control of those powerful, greedy, horrid RheeFormers who have a track record of profits and wealth acquisition for the few over learning for the many children.

  2. Quote:
    ‘To do so, we must have the courage to choose a road “less traveled by,” a journey that begins with taking one step back.’
    Your “close” reading of the Frost poem suggests to me that he didn’t think much of “the road less travelled”, and that the last half sentence ‘and that has made all the difference” is tongue in cheek if not actually cynical, where “all the difference” means “all the little difference there was”.
    The mess that it “reform” in education needs folk to get off the road altogether and strike out into the wood (with map and compass, or at least a bag of pebbles).

  3. I found your analysis of this much trodden on poem re-freshing. Would you mind if I linked this whole post to my liveandworkabroad.wordpress.com? Or perhaps you would be willing to write a special post for us. Our focus readership will include a large number of educators and students living or looking to live abroad. Thank you for your consideration.


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