As a long-term student and teacher, I’ve acquired many books over the years, so I know Penguin Random House is a reliable publisher for a solid quality book at a reasonable price. Sophocles’ “Three Theban Plays,” Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene,” and Dorothy Sayers’ translation of “The Divine Comedy” are four examples of Penguin Classics that sit on my shelves. I have had that “raving fan” moment of seeing the little penguin on the spine and thinking, “What book is this? How have I not read this one before? Perhaps I should add ‘Selected Prose: Matthew Arnold’ to my collection.”
I have a high opinion of Penguin, which is why I became enraged when I received their “High School Catalog: 2019 edition.” The catalog is filled with books advancing social justice causes, while giving token value to the enduring classics one would expect Penguin to showcase (“The Works of William Shakespeare” are advertised on p. 26-27). Its overarching rhetorical balance favors the social justice agenda. In promoting these materials, Penguin is doing its part in shifting American education away from content and towards activism.
Before going through the contents of the catalog, those outside the teaching profession may appreciate a moment behind the curtain. Most schools allow teachers some level of input into what materials are purchased for their classrooms. In my context (a secular private school founded by a successful businessman), each teacher proposes a budget detailing requested texts, supplies, and materials as line items; we then hope for approval.
While that particular process is not universal, most schools have some way of teachers determining what resources they would like to have on hand. Publishers know this, and November and December are the beginning of the teacher marketing season. Major publishers send teachers physical catalogues, hoping that teachers will order from them. For the busy teacher, such a catalog may represent the easiest way to select resources: just order what Dover, Penguin, Scholastic, or Norton recommends. The catalogue is not just a chance to order resources, it also sells a vision of what is possible.
Social Activism Gets All the Attention
The vision of the 2019 high school catalog, which sells “books for your classroom and school library,” according to the front cover, is of social justice activism. Alongside “Minecraft: The Crash” and a rhetoric book entitled “How to Argue with a Cat,” pages 2 and page 3 advocate purchasing “Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves” and “#NeverAgain.” These two titles focus on the twin issues of racial representation in literature and gun control.
Page 4 offers to sell “March: Book Three,” an account of the civil rights movement. On Page 5, we can purchase “Born a Crime,” Trevor Noah’s autobiographical account of his journey from apartheid South Africa to “the desk of the ‘Daily Show.’” Page 6 closes out the half-page book ads with “The Girl who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After.” This “powerful, personal journey” recounts the author’s story of surviving the Rwandan genocide and path to becoming a “human rights advocate.”
Other books telling other stories are included in these five pages, but the books above create a clear rhetorical effect: the stories worth telling and worth knowing are stories of oppression. These are the stories Penguin Random House deems worthy of having their marketing gurus pitch to high school teachers and librarians.
In the words of Robin Williams as the Genii, “We’re not through!” Page 7 contains a full-page spread of six books gathered together to explore the Harlem Renaissance. It includes authors such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and George Schuyler. These works focus on black identity in the American experience, and seek to create points of conversation surrounding ongoing racial tensions.
Page 8 is another full-panel spread, this time focusing on Khaled Hosseini, author of “The Kite Runner.” Teachers can order Hosseini’s new “Sea Prayer,” advertised as a “short, powerful, illustrated book” written “in response to the current refugee crisis.” Page 9 offers a “Spotlight on Social Justice,” showcasing eight texts chosen for their social justice content. Titles include “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a clearly biased anthology titled, “Can We All Be Feminists?” another anthology examining a “deeply divided America” titled, “Tales of Two Americas,” and “Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin.”
Let me be clear: this essay is not opposing the study of race, sex, or class concerns. It is, however, opposing framing nine pages of social justice resources as a positive move for education. Rather than embracing Penguin’s rich resources on back order, this publisher has decided that the purpose of education involves creating mini-activists. Who needs stories tested by time? Schools, in their view, should teach last year’s headlines and do so by advancing the progressive ideologies postmodernity clings to in the aftermath of Marxism’s failure.
One Single Classic Amid All the Politicized Advertising
But the catalogue is not finished! There are sections in the back labeled a bit more traditionally — surely we could turn to the “Language Arts: Fiction and Poetry” section for great works that will set models for students to emulate? Such hopes are held in vain. The “Language Arts: Fiction and Poetry” section features noted feminist author Margaret Atwood with “Hag-Seed: A Novel.” Sam Grahm-Felsen’s “Green” is a “coming of age story about race, privilege, and the struggle to rise in America,” written by a “former Obama campaign staffer.”
Louis L’Amour makes an appearance in this section with “Lost Treasures: Volume 1.” L’Amour is the only author on this page published more than ten years ago, but even then, his contribution is of popular, formulaic writing. The section goes on, and does include one notable work of literature: “Frankenstein.” That’s it. The rest of these works in Language Arts continue the themes already introduced — race relations, heroes who are noteworthy because of their ethnicity, and so on.
I had hopes for the history section. After all, can’t we celebrate the complexities of the past? Not according to Penguin. Social studies teachers, apparently, should be interested in “My Year in Space: A Lifetime of Discovery,” by Scott Kelly, or “The Little Book of Feminist Saints,” by Julia Pierpoint, or “Rad Girls Can: Stories of Bold, Brave, and Brilliant Young Women.” Whoops — I missed one: “Modern Herstory: Stories of Women and Nonbinary People Rewriting History.” These are what high school students should read, according to Penguin, instead of speeches by American presidents, eyewitness accounts of significant historical events, or the documentary history of constitutional liberty.
The U.S. History section is not much better. While it includes the “Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution,” that work is followed by “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. These two works are antithetical in nature, as Coates would undermine the very principles established in the Constitution.
The Obama love affair in this catalogue continues with “West Wingers: Stories from the Dream Chasers, Change Makers, and Hope Creators inside the Obama White House.” Howard Zinn, the noted socialist historian, gets not only a 10th anniversary edition of his error-riddled and highly political “People’s History of the United States” (titled “Voices of a People’s History of the United States”), but also a “Young People’s History of the United States: Columbus to the War on Terror.”
Not a Hint of Balance, Either
Plenty of historians have written accessible, balanced American history: David McCullough, Forrest McDonald, and Clarence Carson could all be represented here to create a balanced slate of options. Instead, Penguin highlights historians who use history to promote a political agenda.
I remember a high school literature teacher who encouraged me to tackle McCullough’s “John Adams,” which was later developed into an excellent HBO mini-series. That reading helped me develop a concern for the complexities of governing a new nation, and the ways in which Adams’ liberal education prepared him for a variety of career options. No historians of McCullough’s caliber are included in this catalogue, although his “1776” would be a perfect fit for a section on “U.S. History.”
I draw two conclusions from my irritating encounter with this catalog. First, Penguin Random House has bought the social justice narrative and believes that the purpose of education has everything to do with inculcating the right views within students. These books, they believe, will help teachers make the world a better place through education progress. My faith in the little penguin is no longer sure.
Second: Penguin thinks this is what will sell to the mainstream educator market. If they are right, children are not learning the actual history of humanity, nor learning to read from those who write well. Instead, they are being handed pyrite and told it is gold by those they trust.
This catalog is an indictment on modern American education. If it is true that “Nature abhors a vacuum,” then Penguin Random House stands ready to fill the vacuum when schools abandon teaching knowledge. Instead of knowledge, social justice causes are filling America classrooms. But in that indictment lies hope — we don’t have to buy their books or follow their ideologies. Instead, pick up a Penguin Classic and read the greats.