Helaine Smith is an English teacher at an elite K-12 girls school in New York City. The Wall Street Journal recently published her essay on teaching literature without letting “politics” or “personal identity” intrude. Here is my response to the Journal:
I share Brearley teacher Helaine Smith’s disdain for “trigger warnings” and excessive deference to hypersensitive political sensibilities. Ultimately, however, I reject what I consider to be her constricted view of literature.
Smith writes that she teaches 6th graders Barbara Allen and several other Scottish ballads that “[are not] about politics or personal identity.” But this claim is false. All great art is about personal identity and rare indeed is the classic, if one even exists, that doesn’t touch on politics as well.
In one of the many versions of Barbara Allen, dying Willie dispatches his servant to notify Barbara Allen of his condition. At Willie’s deathbed, Barbara Allen reminds him that the last time they were together he slighted her while paying respects to other ladies in a tavern. She is otherwise cold and unresponsive.
After Willie dies, Barbara Allen is very sad and she dies too – apparently from a broken heart. They are buried next to each other and the rose bush that springs from Willie’s grave and the briar that sprouts atop Barbara Allen’s grow entwined to the old church wall.
Notwithstanding Smith’s claim, the theme of Barbara Allen is the importance of one’s personal identity and how self-worth depends on recognition by others. Willie’s failure to identify Barbara Allen and her subsequent refusal to respond to his entreaty prove fatal to both. By contrast, the briar and the bush thrive together.
Barbara Allen contains a political element that is directly connected to the importance of personal identity. There are three characters in Barbara Allen but only two count. Unlike the lovers, the servant is unnamed and has no personal identity or value independent of the master he serves. If that’s not a politically fraught statement, what is?