Monday, November 28, 2011


When I was a wee lad, my mother frequently satiated my appetite for reading with many award-winning children’s books and novels. The many whimsical short stories by Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, were among my favorites. The stories are so well known in America, that you can practically guarantee that every person has at least read one story or is familiar with some of Dr. Seuss’s characters. Because Dr. Seuss is such an historically popular author, and because his books are geared towards an arguably young, impressionable audience, I have decided to choose one to analyze through the lens of Education 310 at Western Washington University. I will include broad themes and specific examples that relate to the topics we’ve studied during the course.

In light of the educative focus on pedagogy, I’ve decided to style this project in a manner consistent with my personally preferred visual method of learning. I will begin my thoughts with an image from the book and then transmit those thoughts to you, the reader, via poetry and or prose.

A young, white male walks briskly through suburbia… clean cut grass yards in squares, and white roads. This is clearly not a ghetto, but a nicer part of town. The narrator tells you, this is YOU, not someone else; so a second person points: you are white, suburban, male.

This is essentially the second page of the novel, and provides our first glimpse of a setting. If we read this book as an allegory about becoming an adult and separating from your parents (which is how it’s surely meant to be read), then we can conclude that the intended audience would be young white middle/upper-class males. You’ll notice there are very clear paths leading away from the buildings, which might suggest that the target audience is expected to physically remove themselves from their childhood homes and set out as an individual. This is a very American idea; the American dream has always been about the success of the individual, as opposed to the family or other group oriented values different cultures hold in higher esteem. In this way, Oh, The Places You’ll Go, silences cultures with different attitudes by presenting only one scenario as accepted and true.

A place of darkened windows and unmarked streets… We find ourselves in Dr. Seuss’s ghetto. You’ll notice here that the architecture does not resemble the goofy suburbia depicted earlier, but instead draws on foreign architectural concepts so that the building and archways here more closely resemble Indian architecture as opposed to Western. In the middle of the pages is a large black building that resembles a ‘leaning’ Taj Mahal. This image reinforces a notion that different cultures should be dealt with cautiously, and at the same time seems to paint ghettos as a problem better ignored; the character runs through, avoiding this area completely.

You break your shell and unfurl wings, shake dry, squeal, cry, take two steps and fly. Soaring towards the sun you find gravity outweighing your prayers, your knowledge learned in squares. Plummeting to the sea, you’re Icarus, kid, you’re left behind, you’re dead.

As you might expect in any education class, standardized testing came up several times. We also specifically discussed the “No Child Left Behind Act.” The idea behind the act, and indeed all standardized testing, is to ensure that all students who graduate high school in America all have the same basic skills in various subjects. I have many issues with this model, but the most hypocritical aspect of these programs is how funding is taken away from schools that perform poorly on standardized tests. This is supposed to work at incentive for teachers and administration to teach effectively, but instead it punishes schools with struggling students. It’s so obvious that this doesn’t work, I have no idea how the act got passed. It seems more ridiculous than a Dr. Seuss book…

There a lot of people in this image, can you spot any diversity? A large number of readings from this course discussed the problems with curriculums in America that simply did not include any multicultural content to speak of. This image, by not including any people in a color other than white, makes it difficult for a reader who is not white to identify with the story, and worse, suggests that he or she may not fit into the society in which this book was written. As a future educator, it will be important to me to carefully analyze classroom material to make sure that it does not contain any hidden racism or other negative subtexts.

Note: At least it’s not like this scene in the book is portrayed as an ideal place, indeed it’s the opposite.

I find this illustration incredibly racist. The characters here closely resemble the middle-eastern caricatures of old Disney films. You’ll notice the beards, the mustaches, the turbans, and the pointed shoes with tassels. Again, foreign cultures are being displayed as stereotyped and set apart from the rest of society. You’ll also notice that the character in the middle of the image is playing marimba-like keys that are floating in the air. To me, this connotes the stereotypical mysticism middle-eastern cultures have traditionally been associated with. While the text does not provide a specifically negative context for these characters, that association seems implied by the image.

6.4% of all Black students dropped out of high school in 2008.
5.3% of all Hispanic students dropped out of high school in 2008.
2.3% of all White students dropped out of high school in 2008.
About 30% of students in America will not graduate high school.

I was given a copy of this book when I graduated from a private Catholic high school. Everyone in my class was given a copy with small notes from teachers penned in the front. The percentage of students in my class who graduated: 100%. Dr. Seuss’s concluding statistics may be the most famous passage from this book, but they can only be accurately applied to an elite 5% of students. I don’t think that Dr. Seuss is intentionally racist; in fact I’m sure that this book was created with only good intentions. However, when analyzed under a carefully critical lens, some of the underlying issues at play in America’s education system come to light. θ

1 comment:

  1. Please note that because this blog post falls under the category of criticism, I can use these scans from Dr. Seuss's novel legally as per fair use.