Write and Wrong, Part II

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teachers! Leave those kids alone!

— Pink Floyd, Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2 (The Wall, 1979)

In Part I of this series, I talked about a trend I’ve noticed in the mainstream — mostly in the major media, but also creeping like a cancer into the American educational ethos: The tendency to cast ever-greater amounts of scrutiny on certain kinds of creative writing as a possible determinant of mental illness, instability or a propensity toward violence or murder. This is something that’s been on my radar even before the Virginia Tech massacre, but it has become even more pronounced in the wake of that tragedy.

I ended up that essay by alluding to a couple of great fears of mine: One, that by turning news reporting (or distorting) into the engine of their own aggrandizement, the media would grow ever more into “the deciders” of how much, and what, we see with regard to those who’d murder us en masse…

And two, that as a result of this selective delivery of information, undue emphasis will come to be placed on art, specifically fiction-writing — and that those in charge of grading and cultivating this art will be granted too much power to stigmatize young authors based on their own political biases and far-from-clinical evaluative skills…

In a nutshell, and not be too heavy-handed with a metaphor, I’m afraid that the news media will become the new Salem witch court, educators the new accusers of sorcery, and those talented few special students who need a creative outlet for their feelings (and yes, perhaps some that need a little guidance) becoming the guiltless victims who get burned at the stake.

If you think I’m being melodramatic or unrealistic, keep reading…

“Authors are judged by strange capricious rules. The great ones are thought mad, the small ones fools.”
— Alexander Pope

Perhaps you’re familiar with the case of Allen Lee. If you aren’t, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine why — the media doesn’t like to report on crimes committed by monsters of their own breeding…

Allen Lee is a senior at Illinois’ Cary-Grove High School who was arrested on April 24 — eight days after the Virginia Tech massacre — for something he wrote as part of a class assignment. His “essay” included quotes of semi-violent and macabre music lyrics, rants about the current state of local and national politics, gripes with his school’s curriculum policies, and the suggestion that his aged English teacher’s holier-than-thou attitude and questionable educational techniques (which included buttering kids up with homemade brownies) could one day spur a shooting spree at the Illinois school.

I’ve read this essay. And sure, it’s edgy, but there’s no direct threat of violence there. So why the arrest? It’s clear to me that it was a retaliatory move on the part of the brownie-baking teacher who was skewered by Lee’s prose, or others within the system that found itself in his artistic cross-hairs.

Lee, a straight-A student, was barred from his school because of the incident — which might also have cost him a chance at his dream of joining the U.S. Marine Corps. But that’s not even the most shocking part of the story. According to Lee and other students, the class was instructed by the teacher to write the essay in question without restraint — to just let ‘er rip with whatever they were feeling, good, bad or ugly…

Edgy was the ASSIGNMENT.

Yes, you’re reading all this right. A teacher gives a class instructions to write without guardrails, a kid does it — then gets arrested for it, which threatens his future. If this isn’t a case of what basically amounts to entrapment, I don’t what would be.

It’s also interesting to note that at the time of this debacle, Lee had passed the full battery of military entrance examinations for admittance into the armed forces, which includes a psychiatric evaluation. Also interestingly, one of the reports that actually made it into mainstream outlets (The Chicago Tribune ) claims Lee’s fellow students organized a petition drive to restore him to his rightful place at Cary-Grove.

Here’s what kills me about all this: If some kid in the Deep South had gotten arrested for writing a class essay which alluded to shooting up his school because of perceived racial or sexual discrimination on the part of other students, the media would’ve made him (or her) their champion for weeks — and would have focused the entire country’s attention on what is, in it’s most raw form, a straight-up First Amendment issue…

But because this is about a kid whose frustration is aimed at the educational system (the darling of the leftist, nanny-state media, remember), and whose big dream is fighting for his country — which just doesn’t resonate with news reporters and anchors, you know — Lee’s true story of oppression gets nowhere near the press it deserves.

This is too bad, because it’s a hell of a story.

One thing that DID make it into the mainstream press accounts of Lee’s story is evidence that one of my worst fears — that educators will soon double as children’s mental health screeners — is already coming to fruition. An official from the Cary-Grove school district is quoted in the Tribune piece as saying:

“Our staff is very familiar with adolescent behavior. We’re very well versed with types of creativity put into writing. We know the standards of adolescent behavior that are acceptable and that there is a range.”

Does this sound like teacher-talk, or like what a spokesman from the American Psychiatric Association might say?

Put another way: If I hadn’t given you any context here, and you had to guess whether this quote had come from a group of teachers or a group of mental health professionals, which would you have guessed?

I’ll bet anything that most people would pick the shrinks.

“Writers get to treat their mental illnesses every day.”
— Kurt Vonnegut

Again, my over-arching worry here is that soon, all kids everywhere across the fruited plain will begin to tone down what they write in class for fear of raising red-flags with a bunch of teacher/therapist hacks whose judgment is clouded by their own political agendas. Such a stifling of expression could lead to MORE violence and mental illness, in my opinion.

A great case-in-point comes from a May 11th article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about what published writers and writing instructors have been saying in the wake Seung-Hui Cho’s Virginia Tech massacre about the connection between prose and violence. In the piece, Kerryn Goldsworthy, billed as a “freelance writer and former academic,” is quoted as having written:

“Classes in creative writing do, in fact, bring nutters out of the woodwork. There has been at least one person in every creative writing class I have ever taught who was in need of, or already getting, professional help… The handing [in] of profoundly disturbing work (I never got anything as bad as the Cho stuff, but I did have in one class a Vietnam vet and gun nut who either thought he was an ex-CIA assassin or really was one, and write about it endlessly) puts the teacher in a position where s/he has to take action of some kind.”

See what I mean? Here’s a former teacher who not only assumes herself qualified to diagnose mental illness, but also prejudges her students as more than likely to be nuts! According to her Wikipedia bio-entry, Goldsworthy writes from a left-wing perspective — and she obviously taught from one, too. Why else would she condemn a man who’s clearly aiming to parlay his life’s experiences as a soldier into a writing career?

Could it be because she has a visceral aversion to guns and soldiery?

The “ex-CIA assassin” is one of the most common platforms for action fiction, movies, etc. — and in the absence of other warning signs, this kind of writing should be no more indicative of derangement than any number of other popular genres. I wonder: Would Goldsworthy have stifled, discouraged, stigmatized, failed or had handcuffed a young Tom Clancy for writing para-military prose? Probably…

But I’ll bet Goldsworthy wouldn’t have cast her aspersions on a fledgling author who wrote prose about, say, a shunned-by-small-town-America lesbian who goes into exile to make a study of the CIA’s assassination techniques — then takes up arms to slaughter a bunch of sexist, racist redneck characters in her hometown…

My point is this: America needs an educational system that safeguards against anyone from any political perspective (left, right, black, white, gay, straight, whatever) drawing conclusions about the mental health of students based on their own biases about what these kids write — or their desire to play therapist to enhance their own feelings of validation as educators.

Hey! Teacher! Leave those kids alone!

If a nation loses its storytellers, it loses its childhood.
— William Hazlitt

Some of you may be wondering why I’ve devoted two essays to this topic.

I confess, it’s very personal to me because I also write fiction. Edgy stuff, too. I did it all the way through school, and was given high marks for it…

However, it’s my feeling that were I to start right now as a 12-year-old again — reliving my education exactly as it played out from 7th grade through grad school and writing all the same things I wrote in that period — I think it’s very likely that some pedantic, neo-Marxist, Prozac-popping “educator” with a weak stomach, inflated sense of importance, and interventionist nature would red-flag me somewhere along the way. Such is the climate we live in now, and such is the power teachers may soon wield.

That’s why two essays. Because I consider it both moral obligation and patriotic duty to protect today’s budding Clancys and Ludlums — and fledgling writers of every other genre of fiction — from targeting at the hands of a system in which talent is wrongly identified as a “symptom” by people who are qualified to judge neither genius nor illness…

Bottom line: If we aren’t careful about how we proceed with regard to creativity in this country — especially at the school level (where it should be being protected, nurtured and cultivated) — we risk ultimately ending up a nation of artless automatons who are afraid to exercise the right which defines America most cardinally…

Our freedom of speech itself.

Fighting mad about writing’s bad rap,

Jim Amrhein
Freedoms Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

June 5, 2007