PERSPECTIVES: “Beowulf” Mistreated (in Virginia)

Events show what can happen when we allow the government to get involved in issues of culture.

The great epic poem Beowulf dates from about the 7th century CE and, in 3182 lines of poetry, tells the story of a great leader named Beowulf. It is a fine story of early feudal England, rich with battles, bravery, loyalty, evil, and early Christianity. For more than ten years, it was part of the 9th-grade curriculum that I taught each fall.

Today I read that a senior in rural Riner, VA reported his English teacher to state authorities for the way she was teaching the poem. He writes on January 30, 2022, to the tip line set up by Governor Youngkin, “All my teacher wants to talk about is how the book is sexist because it portrays the warriors as men and not women. I believe my teacher violates Governor Youngkin’s Executive Order, which prohibits the teaching of ‘divisive topics.’”

Gads! Which is worse—the Orwellian tip line of Youngkin or the teacher’s alleged pathetic instruction of Beowulf?

First, the tip line (or tattle-tale line) does not prohibit any poor teacher because once the tattling is done, so is the teaching of “divisive topics.” Whatever the teacher instructed Riner was done before the student reported her. Sure, the reporting of a teacher teaching a divisive topic may stop further teaching of such a pedagogy that is viewed as dangerous. But how long does it take the bureaucracy of Youngkin to act? No arm of Big Brother can be effective in such situations. Still, I offer that talking with a teacher, department head, or principal may be a better path to combat such wrong instruction, which interests me most in this situation.

As written above, I taught Beowulf for more than ten years– in the toney preparatory school that Youngkin’s daughter attended and of which he was a board member. (While I left before Youngkin’s arrival, the school’s pedological philosophy has not changed, and such literature is still part of the curriculum.) However, even in the all-female school, gender was not a central topic in my teaching of Beowulf.

While the poem centers around the exploits of men and their battles, there are females present; some of them, such as Thirth and Welthow, are strong-willed yet minor characters. But the poem recounts the story of a 7th-century feudal lord, which is not a time of gender equality. Critiquing the poem for that perceived weakness as the misguided Riner teacher is accused of would be wrong. Cultures such as those of Beowulf, Moses, Odysseus, and Gilgamesh were patriarchal. To criticize their literature as sexist would be like condemning To Kill a Mockingbird for being too Southern.

I suggest that anyone not wanting to read or teach male-dominated literature stay away from almost all literature written before Bronte, Wolfe, or Austen. However, any English teacher should know better than to teach as the Riner teacher is charged by her student. If she did, shame on her. (One note for the student: Beowulf is a poem, not a book, as you write in your report. If you read it in prose form, I suggest you get a Burton Raffel translation and read the real thing.)

So much is wrong with the events as reported. The lesson taught by the Commonwealth by having a “tip line”; the hypocrisy of Youngkin by supporting a standard of education for his own but treating voter’s children differently; and the teaching of the Riner teacher (if the student report is accurate.) But these events show what can happen when we allow the government to get involved in issues of culture. These are the type of results we can expect.

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