Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Reaching Into the Old Mail Bag

Yesterday we received the following email from English teacher Ben Smith regarding one of our most popular posters:

Hi there --

I recently ordered and received a poster featuring World Literature authors in a periodic table design.

I was very taken aback to find that of all the authors you could have included on this design, you chose to include Adolf Hitler among them.

I mean, that was a shocking discovery. I'm trying to imagine the conversation that could have led to his inclusion -- "sure, he was a genocidal maniac responsible for the murder of thousands, but he did write Mein Kampf..."

It's offensive not only on a human level, but even if there were an objective way to look at it, how could Hitler's body of written work merit this?

I've already decided how I'm dealing with it -- perhaps making it a teachable moment. I'm going to cut that square out, put a small reflective surface or mirror behind it, and tell them that that's a space where they can imagine themselves joining the rest of the world's authors.

It's not possible to preview every detail of the poster on your online site, but even still, I assumed I was safe from Hitler.

Is Ted Kaczynski on your poster of famous mathematicians?

This was our reply:

Of course, there is no way I can argue with you about Hitler's madness. Words can't fully explain his actions and the destruction he caused. He actually appears on another poster of ours, the Periodic Table of Dictators, Despots, and the Despised. I think you'll agree that he certainly belongs there.

Hilter's inclusion on our literature poster was not without deep discussion around here. It is true that he only wrote one piece of any real note. We decided early on in our creation of these types of posters that "one trick ponies" could be included. Otherwise, we'd lose worthy authors like Harper Lee and others whose body of work is limited.

We also decided to expand our thinking of "literature." That's why we include musicians and other writers whose work may not be considered "literary," but remains noteworthy (Stan Lee, a personal hero of mine, appears on our American prose poster, for example).

We accepted in listing authors that we'd include some whose work is banned/disapproved/ill-considered by a potential host of people. J.K. Rowling, who appears on the World Lit poster, has had her work removed from school libraries, and Oscar Wilde also appears on that poster, just to name two.

None of that explanation diminishes Hitler's atrocities, obviously, but that was part of the point of his inclusion. If the over-arching message of our posters is about the far-reaching power of the written word, unfortunately, if we are being academically honest with ourselves and our students, we felt that must also include acknowledgment of the potential for words to be used for pure, unspeakable evil.

I am sorry that his appearance disappointed you, but I assure you that his inclusion was not arbitrary, or merely for shock value. Thanks for being a customer of ours. I hope you'll remain a customer of ours.

That provoked the following reply:

Thanks for your quick response. As a seller of educational materials, I am certain that your decisions regarding content come from careful conversations with a number of people.
It's precisely this fact, however, that concerns me.

As a songwriter, I was first interested in the poster because of its inclusion of writers like Leonard Cohen and Elvis Costello. Like you, I appreciate this expanded idea of literature.
But with this expanded definition and a vast library of literary forms and authors to choose from, it is even more perplexing to me to include Adolf Hitler.

Perhaps you would consider me a bit too sensitive, but I bristle a bit at the comparison of Hitler as a "one trick pony" like a Harper Lee or "ill-considered" like a J.K. Rowling.

I'm not above appreciating the juxtaposition of two unlikely personalities. I think there could be great hilarity in a one act play with Oscar Wilde and Adolf Hitler.

And I suppose, there is some relief in knowing that Hitler is sandwiched between Joseph Hayford and Ahmad Kasravi on your poster. Still, I would argue that despite your assertion about your intentions not be shocking or arbitrary, Hitler and his funny mustache come off as both. (It might be an easy fix to switch it to Charlie Chaplin; he was a better writer anyway.)

I'm academically honest enough to realize that words have the potential to be used equally for good and evil, even the same words--take the Bible, for instance--but if the goal was to provide a wide ranging scope of world literature--for its potential for good and evil and in between, Hitler's inclusion is a bit of an outlier here and as a result, in my opinion, calls attention to itself in a...weird way--for lack of a better word.

Certainly Mao Tse Tung, who is probably responsible for the death of millions as well, was more of a poet and philosopher than Hitler ever was.

In any case, thanks for your response. Like I wrote before, this will become a teachable moment however it plays out.

And our reply to the reply. . . :

Your points are well-taken. In particular, I take some satisfaction over the inclusion of Leonard Cohen into the conversation because a) he has recently become a favorite of mine (I have no real excuse for having discovered him so late) and b) Hitler would really, really hate being on the same poster with Cohen. That makes me smile.

Hitler is a difficult figure for us at TD because we're always struggling to present the "complete" Hitler. If we avoid some aspects of his biography--for example his writing, his failed artistic endeavors--we risk not giving students a complete picture of an important historical figure. However, if we go too far to "humanize" him, we risk trivializing or trying to blandly explain away a monster. It's a line we try to walk, to obviously varying levels of success.

With your permission, I would like to excerpt some of our email conversation into a blog post. We get a hundred or so visitors a day, though very little interaction, and I am hoping it might spark some debate.

Or blog is here: , and as fate would have it, I recently wrote about the latest Quentin Tarantino film.

I appreciate your passion, even if we are on opposite sides of this argument. Your students must really benefit from the energy you put into your teaching.

And one final response before we put it here in all its bloggy goodness:

That would be okay -- I'd appreciate knowing how/what you are excerpting/editing before it's reprinted. (I'd be happier if you just posted our correspondence as it was -- to avoid being misrepresented.)

Not that you would do that intentionally, of course. But I try to pick my words carefully --

I don't think you need to struggle with Hitler any more than you would struggle with Leonard Cohen. There is no worry of not presenting the "complete" Hitler --
There are few men from the 20th century as well documented as Hitler. There was a good article in Slate earlier this year about folks' curious obsession with his sex life and his one testicle. I believe there is a disturbing romanticizing of his life. He's either demon monster or failed artist--lot of armchair psychologist stuff.

Personally, I'm tired of it. If history teachers want to duke it out, go for it. But, I see no compelling reason for his infiltration into literature.

We thought we'd open up the floor to everyone.

Both sides have a pretty strong argument, though obviously we're a little biased.

What is certain, however, is that there are some lucky students out there who have a passionate, informed, creative (a reflective piece in the cut-out box is a splendid idea) literature teacher.

Feel free to comment in the comments section, or drop a line to teachersbrunch at teachersdiscovery dot com.


Anonymous said...

This is an abomination. I'm unsure as to what might be worse -- the halfhearted response to an educator about the tasteless, indefensible decision to include Adolf Hitler among some of the world's most significant contributors to our body of literature (an apology might have worked better), or the fact that a genocidal maniac ended up on what's intended to be a language arts classroom tool. This poster, ironically dealt by a company called 'Teacher's Discovery,' undoubtedly offers legitimacy by association -- if you cannot see this, I'd recommend a thorough review of your editorial staff. Including Hitler here in order to better disseminate his "complete picture" (inconceivable that this even made it into the final draft of the email response) would be humorous if it weren't so disturbing. Shame on those who had anything to do with the development of this product.

Kelly said...

I am not impressed. "If the over-arching message of our posters is about the far-reaching power of the written word, unfortunately, if we are being academically honest with ourselves and our students, we felt that must also include acknowledgment of the potential for words to be used for pure, unspeakable evil." Must we? Or, by including someone like Adolph Hitler, are you providing a level of legitimacy to a man whose hatred led to unimaginable consequences?

The website description for this poster states, "We push the definition of 'literature' a bit, too, so this poster will make a fun addition to your class decor." A "fun addition"? Where, exactly, is the "fun" in Adolph Hitler?

"Amazing" writers? Well, I am amazed that there was a discussion, yet you still chose to include Hitler.

If this is the type of "discovery" you expect teachers to make after spending $25 of their hard-earned money, count me out.

Kelly in Ohio

Dave J said...

I hate to be put in the position of defending Adolf Hitler, so I won’t. Instead, I will defend the intellectual honesty of why someone as terrible as Hitler might be included on a table of world literature.

I should first say that I purchased this chart last February, along with the equally compelling (and arguably more complete) chart of American prose. When I did so, I was also a bit surprised to see quite a few authors who were included on this world literature chart. To me (and my AP English class) the 116 authors chosen were not anywhere near a complete list – in fact, as a group we thought of at least 20-30 more that were easily worthy of inclusion.

And then, one of the science-geeks in the class pointed out that to him what made the chart “fun” was the fact that it was obviously intended to mimic/parody the Periodic Table of Elements that he seemed so fond of, and a Periodic Table with 150 “elements” would not really work. Based upon this, we presumed (collectively) that at someone point this was likely discussed by those who created this chart, and the authors included could be looked upon as founding “elements” to all sorts of writings and movements.

With this as our intellectual base, we then understood why such otherwise arguably less worthy writers as Barbara Cartland, Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Marley, and even Bertolt Brecht might have been included along with more obvious people such as Virgil, Rousseau, Shakespeare, and Kipling. (This is ignoring a few living and deceased authors from Asia and elsewhere who we knew nothing about.)

Sure, as a class we argued a bit about why Hitler was included. But, we quickly came to the conclusion that “Mein Kampf” likely shaped the events of the 20th Century more than any other book we could think of. Was it among the best? No! Did it inspire a generation of followers? Sadly, without question.

We also debated a bit as to whether a better chart might be the “Periodic Table of Great Literature”. This quickly evolved to the definition of “great”. Soon, a young lady in class (our 2009 Salutatorian) quickly quoted from another writer on the chart. She reminded us all how in the first Harry Potter book, Mr. Ollivander said, “I think we must expect great things from you, Mr. Potter. After all, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did great things — terrible, yes, but great.”

To me, as a teacher who often stresses the power of the written word, this was an amazing moment. It was as if bells went off and fireworks exploded. I could see it in their eyes. If greatness can be defined as either good or evil, then how could the power of Hitler’s pure unadulterated evil not be included? After all, perhaps no writer has or could ever be more evil.

At the end of the year, I asked my students to anonymously evaluate what we had accomplished during the year. While they generally deplored Existentialism, I am happy to say that our debate of greatness and important world literature came up more than anything else. (Full disclosure – this happened in March near the end of the year, so perhaps this contributed since it was fairly fresh in their minds.)

I’m 57 years old. Long ago I became a teacher with the hope that my teaching would inspire thought, mold minds, and reach kids. In reality, this has not happened as much as I’d hoped. On that day, someone as revolting as Hitler helped me do so as much as anything has in the last 10 years. Remove Hitler? I say leave him just so all future generations can debate his evilness. Leave him so kids can discuss the boundaries (dare I say) of greatness, and so they can discuss what the the power of the written word can mean and can inspire.

Best Regards,

Dave Johnson

Anonymous said...

It's Adolf Hitler on a poster meant for the classroom. He's positioned alongside actual writers and contributors of revered, cherished literary works. He's there on purpose. This is irresponsibility at its most transparent level. I'm sure Jeff Dahmer had a half-decent TV pilot in him but I'd still pass on adding his likeness to my classroom wall. Incredible that this hasn't seen a boycott yet of Titanic proportions.

Mel Stein said...

With all due respect to "Anonymous" and Kelly, as I look over this poster I see pedophiles, drug addicts, rapists, cross dressers, alcoholics, murderers, sodomists, and various repugnants of many sorts -- a large minority of which I would never have allowed into my home, let alone want my children to read their work. I also see quite a bit of literature that I would not, personally, feel appropriate to read to my cat, let alone assign to my class. That aside, these are the authors who almost universally appear on these same sort of "important literary works" lists–- yes, even Hitler.

As repugnant as Hitler was, to say that "Mein Kampf" was not one of the most important works of the 20th Century would be a lie. His written words inspired millions in a way that few others have ever done. I am Jewish. Long ago (at the insistence of my father) I attempted to read it, but I found it dreadful and boring. (Though perhaps no more so than Camus and others on the poster.) Instead of brushing Hitler's terrible words under the rug, I think it’s better to continue to shine a spotlight of reason on something so hateful. As I think this was what was intended, I applaud Teachers Discovery for doing so.

Perhaps to try to turn this debate into something positive, as it seems that some of us will always disagree on this issue (members of the ADL do also), let’s try to put together a list of 20th Century Literature that might be more important than this one. Though I know that this poster includes only non-American authors, for this discussion I cannot think of any truly important 20th century literature not written by an American. Therefore, how about “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair?


Stein in 60077