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