In this excerpt of a talk given at the National Humanities Center, Robert D. Newman discusses an exemplary humanities moment, when Kurt Vonnegut responded to the banning and burning of Vonnegut’s book Slaughterhouse-Five by school officials in Drake, North Dakota in 1973. Newman notes that this series of historical events involving the kinds of literature we read and teach “reveals the enduring truths in a democratic culture.”
…on December 8th in 1973 when school officials in Drake, North Dakota, burned copies of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Kurt Vonnegut, of course, had served in World War II. He was captured by the Germans, held as a prisoner in Dresden when the Allies bombed the city.
For years, he tried to find a way to tell his story. And meanwhile, he went to graduate school in anthropology. He worked at General Electric. He got married, had three kids, adopted three more, and struggled to find his voice as a writer. But he finally wrote his masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five, which was published in 1969, and it was extremely popular, and for the most part, it got great reviews. But it was banned many times for being obscene, for being violent, for being unpatriotic.
In 1973, there was a 26-year-old high-school English teacher who assigned Slaughterhouse-Five to his students, and most of them loved it. They thought it was the best book they’d ever read. But one student complained to her mom about the obscene language, and the mother took it to the principal, and the school board voted that it should not only be confiscated from the students, who were only a third of the way through the book, but it should be burned. And many of the students didn’t want to give up their books. So the school searched all of their lockers and took them and threw the books into the school’s furnace, and while they were at it, the school board also decided to burn Deliverance by James Dickey, and a short story anthology.
Now, Kurt Vonnegut got wind of this, and he wrote a letter to one of the members of the school board, and the letter said, “Dear Mr. McCarthy, I’m writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board. I’m among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school. If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It’s true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That’s because people speak coarsely in real life. If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the education of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books—books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive. Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.”
Vonnegut’s letter, to which the school board did not respond, I want to argue stands as a humanities moment. These are profound moments that reveal the depths and the aspirations and the enduring human truths in a democratic culture. They stand against the cartoonish fears, the threats, the Mickey Mouse moments and appeals to our worst natures, that often pervade daily information flow and discourse.
Today, of course, we have people running for president who don’t believe in evolution, who don’t believe in global warming, who say they support gay people as long as they don’t practice being gay. They might as well also say they support squirrels as long as they don’t gather acorns for the winter, and trees as long as they stop shedding leaves for the fall.
When I was chair of English at the University of South Carolina in the late ’90s, I used to schedule myself routinely to teach freshman composition, and I would say to the other full professors, if I can do it, so can you. And one semester, I was using Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus as one of our texts, and it’s a very powerful story, as you probably know, in which Spiegelman discusses his relationship with his father, who was a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, and in which the Nazis are depicted as cats and the Jews as mice.
On the first day we began discussing the text, I soon realized that many of the students only had a vague understanding of the Holocaust and were unable to place it precisely in history. And they lacked knowledge of its politics or its consequences. And like a truly hip instructor of the era, in the late ’90s, I asked them to research it on the Internet for our next class meeting and to bring in a couple of sources that they investigated. And in the next class, I was absolutely stupefied that literally half had brought in Holocaust denial sites as their sources of information. And they had trouble understanding my consternation when I denounced these sites.
So I want to be clear that I don’t fault the students for this so much as to point to a prevailing and growing issue that we’re all facing—of information literacy—that I believe it’s incumbent upon us to address. We witnessed the democratization of information. We witnessed its prevalence, its accessibility that’s unprecedented in history. But many have difficulty validating or effectively utilizing the information available to them. To extend the computer analogy, it’s as if we had an enormous hard drive, and there is no processor for it.
Through teaching, and citing, and recognizing, and creating humanities moments, we elevate both information and ethical literacy. These are the cornerstones of social justice and of a truly democratic culture. And such education is the backbone of our defense against the terrorism of cartoonish ignorance and the lackadaisical acceptance of it, which is a slippery slope to the barbaric erosion of healthy questioning and the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.