The Dumbing Down of American Education Continues…

I usually don’t write about political things on this blog. I save that for my facebook page. I’ve decided to make an exception in this particular case however, because as an educator I am so incredibly concerned about the trend I see in education in the States.

Yesterday, I read a news story (you can read it here and here) about a high school teacher in CT. This teacher, Mr. David Olio has long received accolades for being an amazing English teacher, capable of inspiring his students to a noteworthy degree. His trouble began during an AP Poetry class. For those outside the US, an AP course means ‘advanced placement’ and it is typically taught to 17 and 18 year olds as a college prep course. High School students here typically graduate at 18. Sometimes one can even gain college credit through taking these courses. I’d also like to point out that I teach college freshmen and sophomores and that’s the precise age that I’m dealing with in many of my own freshmen college classes.

During the course of the class, one of the students brought in a poem he’d read by Allen Ginsburg. The poem was “Please, Master”, a very graphic poem about a BDSM charged interaction between two men. The student asked if it could be discussed in class and the teacher agreed. The result of that discussion, within days, is that this teacher was suspended, parents were up in arms, and despite both student and community support, this award-winning teacher was forced to resign.

Articles covering this are saying things like “one mistake shouldn’t ruin a good teacher’s career.” I agree that his career shouldn’t be ruined, but I don’t think he made a mistake. A student brought a piece of poetry to an advanced, college prep poetry course and asked to discuss it. As a teacher, I would have made the same decision Mr. Olio did. I might have talked to the students about the origins of Beat Poetry, and the social milieu that birthed it, a world filled with growing racial and class tensions not unlike our own. I might have discussed why Ginsburg chose to craft powerful poems around subjects that were generally considered taboo for poetry. I might have told them that he had been brought up on obscenity charges and taken to court for his brilliant, fucking brilliant poem “Howl,” and that the judge ruled it had ‘redeeming social value’ and Ginsburg won the case. I might have pointed out that before writing “Please, Master,” Ginsburg had been locked up in a psych ward for being gay and had been subjected, against his will, to electroshock therapy and that perhaps a poem like this was his fucking declaration of independence. I might have asked them how LGBTQI people are treated socially today, and Gods know there are enough news articles about discrimination and death that I could have brought to the table with just a cursory internet search to bolster the discussion. Hell, a comparison of contemporary Russia and the US would have filled a class. I might have asked if the poem would be considered quite as problematic or objectionable were it depicting a heterosexual couple (and it might be…despite the popularity of such badly written crap as “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Americans still tend to go crazy at any hint of kink or even sex in media. Puritanism dies hard, folks). For all we know, Mr. Olio discussed all those things and more.

Ginsburg, as a friend of mine pointed out recently, can be a difficult poet to read. His work is graphic, raw, and disturbing and I think it’s meant to be. I also think that’s precisely why we should read him. Higher education isn’t about having your own possibly provincial worldview reinforced. It’s about learning. Part of that is learning how to engage with ideas and concepts that one might find different, disturbing, and highly charged. If education doesn’t challenge and make one uncomfortable than it isn’t education. Part of becoming a thinking adult capable of dealing respectfully with divergent worldviews is also being exposed to a diversity of perspectives early on. Part of becoming an adult is also learning how to cope with ideas that offend and upset. Every day of my life, as a woman, a polytheist, as someone with an invisible disability (chronic pain), I face things in our popular culture, our over-culture that offend me terribly and that dehumanize me as a person. And every day I’m faced with examples of humanity with whom I really don’t want to share a planet (Daesh, the Duggars, etc. etc). Part of being an adult is facing that and how we choose to deal with situations that offend us to our core, or that make us uncomfortable, that hurt us is what determines our character as human beings.

Just last week I read several articles about students at an Ivy League school complaining in their literature classes because material was ‘triggering.’ It evoked an emotional response. It made them uncomfortable. It demonstrated values at odds with their own contemporary world. The case involved a college professor teaching a class on Ovid. One of the students didn’t “feel safe” in the class because many of the stories Ovid describes involve rape (Hades abducting Persephone for instance). I’ve read other articles in which students expect a pass while skipping “triggering” material. Leaving aside the question of how this bullshit waters down and misuses the psychological term “trigger”, let’s consider at the potential effect on education of bowing to such overactive sensitivities. How much of classic world lit is going to be discarded if we remove everything that is possibly disturbing? What is going to happen to a generation of students who have insulated themselves from anything remotely challenging or disturbing when they encounter life? If someone is legitimately disturbed to the point of feeling unsafe by reading “Ovid” in an environment filled with critical analysis and discussion then perhaps that person ought to engage in a bit of personal responsibility and seek out therapy and perhaps he or she is not ready for college. The last thing professors and institutions should do is bow to emotional manipulation, blackmail, and censorship. Better they close their doors first.

I was discussing all of this over breakfast today with my partner and he pointed out something else that I knew, but had not taken into consideration here. Christian fundamentalists (notably utter nutcases like Dominionists and Quiverfull families) have, since the rise of the New Conservatism, made it a point to get themselves on schoolboards. It’s part of their policy of attacking society at a local level. There are various areas on which they particularly focus (and I don’t’ have the stomach this morning to pollute my mind by hunting down requisite articles. I just can’t reread that garbage right now), areas including education, military, finance, entertainment industry, and politics. Many Americans don’t come out in droves to vote in local elections and don’t’ follow that quite as assiduously as the election of our president. We should. The real power is at the local level. The President may be the leader of our nation but powerful political currents start on the local level: school boards, city councils, and the like and what’s happening there is, as one of the articles on Mr. Olio called it, “a creeping social conservatism.”

I very much believe that we need to break the stranglehold and crush the back of the Christian right. Utterly and without mercy. These people believe they are warriors for their God and will stop at nothing to suck the life and freedom out of our nation, our educational system, our society, and our children. They are very bit as dangerous as Daesh, more so in many ways since they are here, among us, acting slowly and insidiously to gain control of the next generation, acting on a local level. There’s already enough in our society alone working against our students. For this and oh so many more reasons, we should be keeping a keen and eagle eye on trends just like what we’re seeing here with the dumbing down of education and the attack of good teachers. We need to be getting involved in our communities at a grassroots level. We need to be paying attention to what is happening in our schools, our school boards even if we don’t have children. We need to awake and aware and maybe, just maybe, fiercely involved.

I hope sincerely that Mr. Olio is able to move on from this debacle with his reputation intact. I hope he is able to find another good teaching position. I hope that his school and community realize what a valuable asset they have lost in allowing his resignation to go through. I fear for the pressures being put on our teachers not to teach. I fear for a generation of students being raised with no emotional resiliency, and no ability to engage insightfully with opinions different from their own. Most of all I fear for those of us who will have to live in the society this will create.

About ganglerisgrove

Galina Krasskova has been a Heathen priest since 1995. She holds a Masters in Religious Studies (2009), a Masters in Medieval Studies (2019), has done extensive graduate work in Classics including teaching Latin, Roman History, and Greek and Roman Literature for the better part of a decade, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Theology. She is the managing editor of Walking the Worlds journal and has written over thirty books on Heathenry and Polytheism including "A Modern Guide to Heathenry" and "He is Frenzy: Collected Writings about Odin." In addition to her religious work, she is an accomplished artist who has shown all over the world and she currently runs a prayer card project available at

Posted on May 30, 2015, in community, Education, Literary Matters and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. As a religious minority student and the daughter to a teacher in the South, I know a lot more about the education system than a lot of the people around me here at home.
    I know that the school boards have their heads up their asses, most of the time. I know that superintendents either abuse their power or get sent off to other places.
    I know we live in a society that values damaging, reason-less “team sports” and perpetuates inner rivalries to the extreme, to the point of neglecting the arts and the sciences. As much as we place more value on the core classes, we neglect them in favor of instantly gratifying competitions. A bread and circuses where you have to pay for everything.
    I’m also overly familiar with the branding of classes to reflect the Christian ideal. My first high school had a class called “The Study of Religions” that I was loathe to find out, from the apologetic, cringing teacher was a bible study class she was forced to keep the name of by the principal and the school board.
    This same school also forced me into a corner in ways of head covering out of ignorance. My preference for the tichel style was considered a bandanna, a ‘gang sign’ despite the fact we were in the middle of a farming community that didn’t have the ability to support a gang if it tried.
    This last year of high school, at my second high school, was wrought with overcompensating, poor management skills, and an increase in population that was about half of the previous population with the addition of another grade. This was in one high school, the only one in the district besides the new Freshman Academy. In a big school district. The principal has been forced to give up the position by the very man who put her in it as a poor attempt to cover his own ass. There has been a complete restructuring, and the second mass exodus of teachers who are being shoved out by conditions is likely to happen soon. These teachers are also barely getting an increased salary, and there is a significant lack of them anyways. People who would be good teachers, and would enjoy it, don’t want to get payed that little and be treated that bad. My mother has promised she’ll quit herself if this next year doesn’t treat her right, but she is devoted to her kids.
    She does teach AP, but she has a little more freedom. She teaches AP art, and brings out the best in her kids’ abilities. One of her best students this last year concentrated on pinup style art. Despite her successes, the kids adoration of her, and her love for teaching, she was moved into a new, smaller room that she has to keep immaculate, has sinks much too small, and the a/c and heater don’t work properly. She wasn’t the only one to face deplorable conditions in the brand new building.
    TL;DR: The states and the school boards and destroying their education system by under funding the schools, under paying the teachers, and underwriting the curriculum (one local state senator wanted to rewrite the American History text book because it was “anti-America”). Maybe they’ll regret their choices when there are even less teachers to teach even more students, but I kind of doubt it…
    Sorry for the rant…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I thank both of you, and especially SolarBaby, for continuing the same rant I started way-back in the early/mid 1970’s. I still remember the interview I had while a commissioned USAF officer for a position on the English faulty at the Academy back in 1975. I would be expected to teach remedial composition to the cadets. I mentioned that I believed that they would find the same thing to be true in mathematics within a short period of time. I was stationed 2 years later in South Carolina when I saw a small article buried inside a newspaper saying that very thing. I had friends while an undergraduate (a top-100 small, private college) who took advanced freshman calculus with only a slide rule! To be whiners, like those so-called Ivy students, is demeaning. Give their seats to someone who would truly benefit from it. To think that an almost-adult student cannot handle an important American poem is a travesty. I can go on and on and on and …..


  3. I find it extra ironic that he gets in trouble for a poem a student brought in about consensual BDSM when students have to deal with real violence in their schools, and sometimes in their homes! The problem with this whole trigger warning thing is it comes out of online self-help mental health communities that involved many people who are *not trained in mental health* and people who aren’t getting any actual treatment for PTSD (which they may or may not be actually diagnosed with) deciding that this is the way to deal with PTSD. Peer support can be great but it has its limits! I’m all for accommodating students with documented disabilities (including mental health conditions) but totally changing curriculum is not “reasonable accommodation”.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Has anyone seen the Bette Davis film ‘Storm Center’? That was made in 1956. I wonder if that film could be made today.


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