Lord of the Lies

Bill headshotby  Bill Bigelow

Portland, Oregon language arts teacher, Michelle Kenney, has written a provocative article for Rethinking Schools about some of her curricular choices—and how what seem like great ideas one moment, turn out to embed troubling race and gender biases. I don’t want to give anything away, because there are interesting twists and surprises in her article. But it doesn’t spoil her story to mention that in one encounter included in the article, a parent insists that Kenney teach Lord of the Flies, a book that Kenney detests because of its pessimism about human nature.

It’s a novel I read as a high school sophomore. I found it engrossing, and spent long hours gripped by the conflicts of the boys on the island. But I remember being troubled by the book, and by its conclusion that invited the reader to breathe a sigh of relief as the British Navy arrived to restore order and civilization. Its message: How easy it would be to fall into barbarism, without …. well, without the guns and uniforms and commanding presence of empire.

It seems that Lord of the Flies lingers as a distasteful memory for a lot of us. In her “Outside In” column in the March/April 2013 issue of Orion magazine, on “The Politics of Play,” Jay Griffiths lays into Lord of the Flies, and argues that, not only is it an offensive book, utterly inappropriate for school, but is also flat wrong in its premises.

Lord of the Flies opens with misadventure,” Griffiths writes, “as the children are stranded on the island. An odiously racist text, it describes the group of boys who become the cruel killers as a ‘tribe’ of ‘savages,’ hunting, dancing, chanting, and ‘garlanded,’ with their long hair tied back: ‘a pack of painted Indians.’”

It’s a testament to the pervasiveness of racist stereotypes in today’s society that this novel wasn’t yanked long ago from high school book rooms. It expresses contempt for indigenous cultures, and embraces a cultural hierarchy, with Western empire on top. Lord of the Flies’ portrayal of humanity’s innate savagery justifies the subordination and loss of “lesser” cultures. It’s an especially troubling message these days as global warming-induced rising oceans force indigenous island people—like those on Kiribati, the Carteret Islands, and Tuvalu—to flee their homes.

Griffiths concludes her column with what she calls “a real-life Lord of the Flies incident”—one that offers the exact opposite message from that of the book. Here’s the story Griffiths tells:

One day, in 1977, six boys set out from Tonga on a fishing trip. They left safe harbor, and fate befell them. Badly. Caught in a huge storm, the boys were shipwrecked on a deserted island. What do they do, this little tribe?

They made a pact never to quarrel, because they could see that arguing could lead to mutually assured destruction. They promised each other that wherever they went on the island, they would go in twos, in case they got lost or had an accident. They agreed to have a rotation of being on guard, night and day, to watch out for anything that might harm them or anything that might help. And they kept their promises—for a day that became a week, a month, a year. After 15 months, two boys, on watch as they had agreed, saw a speck of a boat on the horizon. The boys were found and rescued, all of them, grace intact and promises held.

These days, the last thing we need is a book like Lord of the Flies that offers a cynical portrait of our inner savage—a savage in need of a system of allegiance pledges and bosses and orders and tests and marching in line; all rooted in the fear of “consequences.”

Yes, we know that people can be violent and greedy. But through and through, we’re better off when the school curriculum is built on the presumption that human beings are capable of cooperation, kindness, intelligence, and solidarity. We ought to choose our literature with that in mind, and we ought to organize school life in a way that nurtures those human qualities.

Related Resources

RethinkingColumbuscvr Rethinking Columbus. Over 80 essays, poems, historical vignettes, and lesson plans re-evaluate the legacy of Columbus. Packed with useful teaching ideas for kindergarten through college.
unlearningindianstereotypes Unlearning Indian Stereotypes (DVD). Narrated by Native American children, the DVD teaches about racial stereotypes and provides an introduction to Native American history through the eyes of children.
ChristensenBooks In Teaching for Joy and Justice, Linda Christensen demonstrates how she draws on students’ lives to teach poetry, essays, narratives and critical literacy skills. Reading Writing, and Rising Up is a practical, inspirational book that offers essays, lesson plans, handouts, and a remarkable collection of student writing, all rooted in an unwavering focus on language arts teaching for justice.

8 thoughts on “Lord of the Lies

  1. I’ve used Lord of the Flies in my Humanities I in Action for some years. It raises so many good questions about human nature, and at the end we question what kind of “deliverance” comes by force. It provides psychological and sociological commentary that is corroborated by the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments, and helps kids consider how genocide could occur. It’s been a key text in our course for some years. We use it at the beginning of the year to consider the worst of human nature and civilization, and then build more positively throughout the year. We use it to consider, as Simon says, “mankind’s essential illness.” In order to make a difference in the world, students need to wrestle with human nature and human behavior, and I’ve found this book, despite its quite foreign setting of British boys on a deserted island, allows us to delve into these questions better than any other book we’ve found to date.

    1. Well stated argument if favor of not banning/excluding books but rather to use them as the beginning of an exploration of who we are and what are basic nature is. Rather than excluding this book, or any other, write a book in response to explore human nature as you would see.

  2. “its conclusion that invited the reader to breathe a sigh of relief as the British Navy arrived to restore order and civilization. Its message: How easy it would be to fall into barbarism, without …. well, without the guns and uniforms and commanding presence of empire.”

    This is a complete misreading of the text. Any sigh of relief at the end is pervaded by a deep sense of irony that the adult world is off committing the same atrocities for more complex, yet basically the same reasons as the kids on the island. This conclusion may be pessimistic, but I think it would be hard to argue that it’s not realistic. How many wars throughout modern and ancient history have been the result of petty greed and unwillingness to cooperate?

    To deny or sugarcoat the violence and aggression throughout human history across all cultures and civilizations would be a horrendous disservice to our students. This novel profoundly explores a deep problem at the core of the human condition. A problem that has run through the most primitive tribes to the most complex civilizations. This is a critique of man, not a critique of “savages”. An important theme of the novel is that all our societies have this savage element somewhere deep inside of it.

    I agree that we need to teach optimism and cooperation in the classroom, but we also can’t shield the ugly sides of the human condition in the process. As a young student, I hated being spoken down to, as if I couldn’t handle the truth. Avoiding this novel for its pessimism feels a lot like assuming that our students can’t handle interpreting this novel for themselves. Even if you do believe this novel to be pessimistic with racial overtones, it’s an excellent work of literature worthy of study. You teach it, share your opinions, and allow your students to form their own opinions on the work.

    All in all, excluding this book from the curriculum seems very misguided to me.

  3. I agree with most of this article’s critique of the novel, but also with martinschmidtinasia’s point that all of those flaws can make for excellent discussions.

    Much more can be said about the book. The absence of girls is both convenient and thought-provoking (there are not only racial prejudices at work in the novel’s assumptions, but gender prejudices as well). The absence of girls, and the youth of the boys, means an absence of sex, and this is also a point worth discussing (and one of the reasons schools are so happy to use it as a text for class study). Etc.

    However, your reading of the novel’s ending seems quite mistaken to me. The boys are on the island in the first place because a new war has broken out, presumably involving the use of nuclear weapons. The adults, that is, have broken down into exactly the murderous savagery that the boys devolve into on the island. The British naval captain therefore is hardly a straightforward representative of order and civilization, and your reading of the book’s “message”—”How easy it would be to fall into barbarism, without …. well, without the guns and uniforms and commanding presence of empire”—makes no sense at all when you consider the frame tale of the novel: a world that has already fallen into barbarism; the world represented by the naval officer.

    Eric

  4. There are many more schools in the U.K, that are not co-educational, which is the opposite of the U.S. educational system. Goldman merely used what was an educational structure that was common and commonly known, rather than doing so to make any statement about sexism.racism, etc. That argument pushes things a bit much.There was quite enough going on without anyone having to stretch things out and make yet more complexities muddle up a perfectly good story’s vehicles for its messages.

  5. Reblogged this on Amatlakwiloa and commented:
    “Lord of the Flies opens with misadventure,” Griffiths writes, “as the children are stranded on the island. An odiously racist text, it describes the group of boys who become the cruel killers as a ‘tribe’ of ‘savages,’ hunting, dancing, chanting, and ‘garlanded,’ with their long hair tied back: ‘a pack of painted Indians.’”

    It’s a testament to the pervasiveness of racist stereotypes in today’s society that this novel wasn’t yanked long ago from high school book rooms. It expresses contempt for indigenous cultures, and embraces a cultural hierarchy, with Western empire on top.

  6. A good deal of nonsense is accumulating here.

    If all books containing racist and sexist attitudes were eliminated from our reading lists, we would have very little left to read that was written before 1975. Homer? Nope. Dante? Nope. Shakespeare? Nope. Melville? Twain? Faulkner? Hemingway? Fitzgerald? All consigned to the rubbish bin.

    Furthermore: the study of literature is NOT primarily an entertaining approach to history and sociology. Imagination and storytelling are essential to human culture. Students need to learn the stories that have shaped human civilization; they need to learn how stories work, so that they become adept at analyzing narratives of all sorts. They need to learn how language and imagination combine in poetry to raise questions that would be difficult to raise in a narrative. They need to learn the value, and the delights, of literary art.

    A flawed narrative like ‘Lord of the Flies’, well taught, can be an outstanding way to learn many of these things. It can also help students become more sensitive to the way that racism, sexism, and other prejudices and assumptions can be embedded in a story—any story, including the ones told by politicians and advertisers, for instance.

    Eric

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