Some observers today object to teaching dark material to high-school or even college students because they fear it will be psychologically damaging. In one case, I read about a Virginia mother’s push to get her son’s high school to ban a novel about slavery that gave him nightmares. I was struck that such a standard would preclude reading many outstanding literary works. The “Iliad,” “Macbeth,” “The Trial” and “1984” come immediately to mind. If literature can cause nightmares, so can history. “History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake,” Stephen Dedalus famously says in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” “Ulysses” was published in 1922, four years after World War I ended.
It’s true that becoming educated means learning about, in the words of Matthew Arnold, “the best which has been thought and said.” It also requires learning about the dark passions that drive human beings. Young children shouldn’t be required to read disturbing literary or historical material, but it is important that older students learn what our world is really like.