Teaching the Crucible in the Post-Truth Era

Actual still frame from The Crucible (1996). No alterations have been detected.

“We burn a hot fire here; it melts down all concealment. Are you certain in your conscience, Mister, that your evidence is the truth?” – Deputy Gov. Danforth, The Crucible, ACT 3.

Dear College Professor,

As you may have read, I recently taught The Crucible in my 11th-grade English class. I know what you’re thinking. “I read The Crucible in high school in 1990, you read The Crucible in high school in 1971, you’re teaching The Crucible in 2019. What’s the diff, man?” When I first started teaching The Crucible last year, I didn’t know either.

But this year, I kind of started to, which is why I wrote the first part of this article, where I explained some of the difficulties I was encountering this year, and how I hoped to work around them. In this second part, I’m going to tell you how my solutions worked out, and what I learned about my students and myself.

Since I was once a College Professor, perhaps one not that different from you, I’m hoping that my observations about my students’ political and information literacy will help you prepare to teach this same body of students as they enter your classrooms.

If we limit ourselves to the historical context of the 1950’s, The Crucible is not a difficult text to teach. It’s when we try to help our students examine the play’s relationship with our 21st-century politics that things get sticky.

In 1952, the already acclaimed playwright Arthur Miller used the plot and setting of Salem Witch Trials as the foundation for an allegory about his own experiences during the Red Scare of the 1950’s. During this decade U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy led the House Un-American Activities Committee to accuse numerous Americans, based on little or no evidence, of being communist spies. Miller represented the contagious panic and mass-hysteria of the Salem Community to show his audience how a search for truth and justice had become corrupted by fear and a compulsion among the political elite for self-preservation.

As a result of Miller’s play, as Erin Cassese recently explained in a recent Vox article, the term “Witch-Hunt” entered the American consciousness as a means to describe a government-led, fear-driven persecution of marginalized members of society (often, as in the Salem Witch Trials and the Red Scare, women) for scapegoats. Did you notice that woman being inappropriately assertive? She might be a witch, or a communist.

But as Cassesse points out, our modern “Witch Hunts” – the term invoked by President Trump each time his actions are investigated or his authority questioned, “are often invoked defensively by men in positions of power and authority.” Calling investigations into patriarchal abuse of power, be they Trump’s alleged collusion with foreign powers or accusations of sexual assault by men like Brett Kavanaugh (as in this shaky argument), “witch-hunts” does more than undermine their veracity in the public eye – it delegitimizes them, and repositions the powerful as victims.

This second point – about the way that the term “Witch Hunt” has been co-opted by men those who control the apparatuses of state power – is the lesson that I find both more important for my students to understand, and found impossible to teach in my classroom. But it’s the point I find most important because it’s about language and literature and the way language changes. About how a term used to describe the abuse of the weak by the powerful has been co-opted to protect the already powerful. Whether or not we believe Kavanaugh, for example, or even sympathize with his outrage, the use of the term “Witch Hunt” has changed – and this is relevant to an American literature classroom.

When I tried to discuss this problem of language with my students, they were mostly silent. It’s true that they’re in high school – many of these students don’t follow politics closely. But probably fewer of your students do than you think, either. Yet, I found that they are nonetheless exposed to the modern use of the term, through either their social media or their parent’s television sets. Yet, because of the disparity between the ways that conservative and mainstream media sources portray current events, a classroom cannot create a consensus because it cannot agree on basic facts.

As I told you in my last post, in an attempt to remedy this problem, I asked my students to research a controversial current event that has been characterized in the news media as a “Witch Hunt.” I asked them to then write an essay that argued whether their event really is a Witch Hunt. In other words, based on their research, are the accusations driven by actual evidence of wrongdoing, or by mass hysteria and desire for political power.

Well, I’ve now had time to read their essays, and to reflect on what I learned from reading them. I’m ready to share with you, reader.

And the main thing I found: finding good, unquestionably unbiased and reliable sources about current events is getting to be kind of a sticky situation.

When Things Are Sticky

Quand y’en a marre […] via Adrien Leguay

As in any research project, our choice of sources will often determine the answers to our research questions. When I taught research in college, and when I teach it now, I try to teach my students how to identify reliable sources and to avoid unreliable sources.

My students made a lot of mistakes in this part of their projects. Often, these were the same mistakes my college students typically made – failing to understand the difference between an editorial/opinion piece and investigative journalism, for example. Or relying heavily on sources that did not analyze any primary information, but whose primary purpose was just to generate web traffic. Or accepting the face-value assertions that their source is non-partison when just a little digging reveals it’s sponsored by an oil company or something. So, I need to teach this better. You might consider the idea of placing an emphasis on this area, too.

There is no oil in the water. Coast Guard_100618-G-5176S-237-oil via Florida Sea Grant

On the other hand, I found that when we’re researching current events, it’s much more difficult to find the lines between a reliable source and an unreliable source than when we’re doing the research typical of the college classroom. We can’t just say “use only peer-reviewed sources.” If you’ve ever tried using your university-provided databases for research on a topic less than a couple of years old, you’ll know it doesn’t work that well.

When we leave the sources open to the online sources that could be arguably deemed reliable, which I did when I assigned the “Witch Hunt” project to my students, students can find the “facts” to support either side of an issue. My students found the sources to support arguments that Trump and Kavanaugh are victims, as well as that their victims are victims. They were not always sources I necessarily liked. But they were sources that, based on my initial online surveys, their families and immediate social circles would find reasonable.

Faced with this issue, I’m aware that some teachers make a list of prohibited sources. For example, you can use CNN but not FOX. You can use the Washington Post but not the New York Post. But I’ll tell you, it’s really easy to alienate your students by telling them that the primary sources of news accepted as unbiased in their household are really propaganda.

The Fire of Concealment

Fire! Via D4E

In your research and in my research peer-review is the gold standard but there is no peer review for current events because no one can agree on who has authority. Our standard news conduits leave open questions we would have once deemed reasonable to all but conspiracy theorists. What is reliable information? Is it the Attorney General of the United States? Is it the Central Intelligence Agency or the President of Russia?

In the United States we cannot agree on the answer to these questions as a society. In teaching The Crucible this year, I’ve come to doubt that it is not reasonable to presume that I can solve them in my classroom.

In Act 3 of the Crucible, the protagonist John Proctor who, as the saying goes, has 99 problems with him but being a witch is not one of them, tells Deputy Governor Danforth, the judge of the play’s Salem Witch trials, that Abigail Williams and the other accusers are lying. To prove this, John Proctor calls on Mercy Warren, who has herself accused others of witchcraft, to testify. Danforth warns Proctor: “We burn a hot fire here; it melts down all concealment. Are you certain in your conscience, Mister, that your evidence is the truth.”

Danforth’s fire is one of purification, that burns the impurities away from society. But what if our 21st-century fire does not “melt down all concealment” but instead burns so brightly that none can see what is behind it? What if this fire burns so long that we come to question whether there is any truth behind it, at all? Maybe this is the danger. Maybe this is the lesson of The Crucible in the Post-Truth Era.

IMG_20190501_071524

Clay Zuba is an English Teacher at Xavier College Preparatory High School in Phoenix, Arizona, where he teaches American Literature and writing. In 2016, he was awarded a Ph.D. in American literature at the University of Delaware. His acclaimed blog love7g.com about Nathaniel Hawthorne is a precursor to his upcoming historical novel Love in the House of the Seven Gables.

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Teaching The Crucible in the Age of Trump

Dear College Professor, I Taught The Crucible in the Age of Trump.

“NO COLLUSION . . . A TOTAL WITCHHUNT!” – Donald J. Trump, Washington DC, 2018.
I don’t truck with no Devil!” – Tituba, Salem, 1692. The Crucible by Arthur Miller.

Dear College Professor,

I’m teaching Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in my college preparatory high school classroom.

Miller’s play, which, just to remind you, uses the Salem Witch trials as an allegory for the hysteria and authoritarianism of the 1950’s Red Scare bears striking parallels to the multiple federal investigations of our 45th President of the United States – many of these invoked by the President himself and his repeated use or (misuse) of the term “Witch Hunt.”

I first began thinking about how factions within American society had appropriated and altered the meaning Miller’s interrogation of “Witch Hunts” in 2017 when Donald Trump and his associates began adapting the term to discredit those who asked questions about Trump – particularly questions about his relationship with Russia.

Back then, I was beginning my blog Love in the House of the Seven Gables, which studies and reiterates aspects of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel The House of the Seven Gables. Because Hawthorne set his novel against the backdrop of the Salem Witch Trials, connections between Hawthorne’s novel and contemporary politics came naturally to me.

Since 2017, the term has become only more prevalent. At times our culture uses it in ways similar to its Miller’s original meaning, such as when immigrants and Muslims are demonized. At other times, the phrase “Witch Hunt” is used in what I can only consider a “Trumpian” sense – because Trump appears to have originated this new use of the term – where instead of being applied to highlight persecution of marginalized peoples by those in positions of power, the term is used by the powerful to disavow any investigation into their actions. This is the sense of the term as used by those who defended now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh against allegations of violence against women during his confirmation hearings. For a concise history of how the term “Witch Hunt,” has changed in American society, I recommend Erin Cassesse’s Vox article.

Even with such media high exposure to the term “Witch Hunt,” I wondered what connections my students could make between the play and contemporary politics. I wanted to help them see how dramatically a play that Miller wrote in 1953, set in 1692, could be strikingly relevant to 2019. I wanted to help them see how an American play first performed before most of their parents were born could still be relevant to their 21st-century world.

How many of them, I wondered, were already aware of the obvious parallels between Miller’s play and our own political crises? How many, while reading, could connect the dots. And among those who couldn’t, could I help them see it? Surely, I thought, no one could be sitting in a college prep classroom in the Age of Trump without having heard the term “Witch Hunt.” Or depending where they’d heard the term,  “WITCH HUNT!!!” Would they understand that “This is Not A Witch Hunt”?

Well College Professor, I was in for a surprise. You might be, too.  

Even though I’m only a high school teacher, I’m telling you this because my students will soon be your students, either literally or figuratively. As I’ve mentioned before, I used to teach college writing and literature. Because I have served as a university instructor, I can anticipate your expectations. Yet as a high school teacher, I have first-hand knowledge of how your incoming students view and interact with the world.  

I hope that my insights will aid you as you encourage your own students to critically interrogate connections between American literature and contemporary American culture. As blog posts on this very teaching and American literature website, like Caitlin Kelly’s Teaching Charlotte Temple after #MeToo and Randi Tanglen’s Teaching Failure: Aunt Phillis’s Cabin suggest, you are interested in doing this.

The Crucible and This Trumpian Moment

FireShot Capture 018 - Cable Spins Mueller Report In Clashin_ - https___www.huffpost.com_entry_mueHannity dropping the mic on a particularly Monty Burns-like Robert Mueller. Youtube.

I began teaching the play the week of March 25th, 2019, which was by coincidence the week after Robert Mueller delivered his report of the Trump-Russia investigation to Attorney General William Barr. Over the weekend, the term “Witch Hunt,” had been broadcast over cable news and social media perhaps more than ever.  As soon as the Mueller Report was released, Sean Hannity, one of Fox News’ highest rating pundits, had declared, “The Witch Hunt is Over!” Immediately thereafter, with no hint irony, Hannity urged the federal government to investigate Ukraine’s support of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. It kind of seemed like Hannity does not understand the lessons of The Crucible. Would my students? Over the past couple of weeks, what I expected to be a challenge in helping students develop critical thinking skills has turned out to be a problem of information.

In this post, I want to tell you what I found out, how I’m trying to remedy and adapt. I’ll tell you about a short research project I assigned my students as part of my adaptation. In about a week, when I’ve had a chance to review the projects, I’ll tell you how it turns out.  

5494470688_9c012ef54b_zMap Puzzle via Ken Hawkins

A Conundrum Discovered

From previous experience with these students, I knew that we could move easily between analysis of The Crucible and the connections that Arthur Miller established between the Salem Witch Trials and the Red Scare in his 1996 article “Why I Wrote The Crucible.” After all, we’ve been working to make connections between different texts, as well as between texts and real life, over the course of this school year.

I wondered, though, how easily could we move between the themes of the play and discussions around contemporary political discourse? And if it wasn’t easy, how could I teach the critical thinking necessary to analyze the connections between the language of the play and similar phraseology in contemporary politics?

I tried to make this assessment on Day 1 of our study of the text through an all-class discussion. Students had read only our textbook’s introduction to the play (which gives historical context of the Salem Witch Trials, and literary context for the McCarthy Hearings), the author’s Note on Historical Accuracy, and the Overture to Act I. These readings provided the exposition necessary for students to see how Miller set his play during the Salem Witch Trials as an allegory to analyze how mass-hysteria, coupled with political leaders interested more in authority and personal interest than justice, had ravaged 1950’s society and persecuted the innocent.

The class proved capable of following along with Miller’s connections. I then asked what I thought would be a simple question: “Has anyone heard the term ‘Witch Hunt’ discussed in relation to current events in American society?” Met with silence, I rephrased the question: “Where have you heard this term applied in contemporary politics or news?” Again, silence.

Finally, one student (who happened to Hispanic) raised her hand. “OK,” she said, “I’ll just say it. This reminds me of the ICE raids on immigrant communities.” This comment offered a parallel that a few others picked up on. We then discussed parallels between the mass hysteria describes in his Overture to ACT I and the fears held by sectors of American society who believe that immigrants – especially from the Middle East or Central America, are entering our society with the intent to harm us (and now I’ll just say it, white people).

In the next class, one student asked amid the uncomfortable silence. “Do we have to talk about this, because isn’t this politics?” This student unintentionally let me know that she was quite familiar with current events.  I replied that “it is, and it isn’t. It’s political, but Miller’s play is political. And our goal in this discussion is not to engage in a political debate, but to analyze how the term “Witch Hunt” is being used in contemporary society.” Still, students were very, very quiet.

Simple Questions

When you are a teacher, it can be hard to sense whether students really don’t know what you’re talking about, or they just don’t want to acknowledge that they know what you are talking about. To find out, I created an anonymous survey for my remaining class sections.

My first few questions that came up with expected results. I learned that only 1% of my students had previously read The Crucible, or seen a movie version. Seventy percent had studied the McCarthy Hearings and the Red Scare a couple of weeks ago in their U.S. History class. This second result explained why our discussions of Miller’s use of the Salem Witch Trials to set his allegory of the McCarthy hearings had gone pretty smoothly.

Responses to my next few questions just as clearly explained why we were not able to generate any discussion of 21st-century use of the term “Witch Hunt.” My questions and my students’ response are detailed below.

Crucible Survey 3

So roughly 65% of students had indeed heard the term “Witch Hunt” in contemporary news, an additional 20% had at least some idea what we were talking about. As students sometimes do, my students knew what I was talking about, but didn’t feel like talking about it in class. But why?

Their answers to my next two questions did not answer this question directly but enabled me to make what are probably reliable inferences.

Crucible Survey 1

Crucible Survey 2

I asked these last two questions because I wanted to get a sense of how much disagreement, and degree of disagreement, exists in my classroom.

Contrary to popular belief, young people in high school and college are not disconnected from politics. You may disagree with me. I know this statement contradicts adult folklore and the stereotype of students scrolling up and down their phones all day. Young people are exposed to information about contemporary politics daily.

Information is not the problem. The problem is the kind of information.

I know what you’re thinking. What?

“What”? Giphy.

Bear with me a moment. And forgive me for not frequently citing sources. You will find that the hypothesis that follows is based on common knowledge.

Young people today – the age of my high school students and your college students- consume less print and radio news than their parents. And though their parents watch a lot of cable news, young people get most of their news through social media. This was my personal experience based on casual conversations with students when I taught college. It is my experience based on conversations with my current students. And my survey results confirm it.

Social media increases our own innate tendencies toward confirmation bias by bombarding us with advertisements based on demographics and “likes” and clicks. If Facebook knows that you are 17 years old, for example, it will show you advertisements for vape products because that is the target market that the vape giant Juul has told Facebook it wants.

Also based on demographics and internet behavior, Facebook (and the Twitter, and the Instagram, and the Snapchat, and other things that you and I don’t even know about) will also recommend that we follow accounts run by political advocacy organizations and by companies who make their living by promulgating totally fake news. These advocacy organizations and fake news sources produce biased, oversimplified, and incendiary information.

Based on whom I’m friends with, how old I am, where I live, and my behavior on social media (or my gmails or anything and everything) the social medias will encourage me to click and follow accounts that it thinks will confirm my political views – through “fake” news or alternative facts or news based on highly partisan conclusions.

The same can be said of our cable news sources – especially the place where most of my students hear political information on television – Fox News.

Don’t get mad at me. I know, from yet more personal experience trying to have conversations with people who watch only Fox News, that people get mad when you question the veracity of that network. But just remember, this is the network that told viewers Barack Obama is a Muslim and is even now telling its viewers that the Mueller report “totally exonerates” Donald Trump from any wrongdoing – even when this is exactly the opposite of what even AG Barr, quoting Mueller’s report, just said.

My students do not seek out Fox News as their primary news source, but it’s what 50% of their parents are watching. I thought this is because I taught in a predominantly red state. But I’ll tell you, reader, I did a little research. And the numbers produced in my survey are pretty close to the national average. Fox News has more than half the market share among Cable News viewers, with CNN following at 35% and MSNBC at 10%. And even among those not getting their TV news from Fox News, those who watch CNN and MSNBC are regularly informed of Fox’s most egregious distortions. 

You and I are old enough to remember when there was no Fox, no MSNBC. Only network news and print sources. For my students, Fox has been on the TV in their parents’ homes since they were born. And targeted social media ads have populated their screens since they were teenagers. For them, all of this is normal. I must be beginning to sound very old to you. Let’s move on.

In short, the “news” we find on social media, where 60% of my students indicate they receive most of their news, massively distorts information – or deliberately delivers us disinformation. And television, when it does give us true information, does not encourage us to understand differing points of view. Combined, our television and social media often encourage us to regard those who do not share our political views as less intelligent, less moral, less human.

22459787_b3499d9fc1_z

What other people look like you like when you get too much news from social media. “Werewolf Me” via Paul Huber.

A Remedy Considered

Based on their survey responses and my initial attempts at classroom conversations about contemporary use of the term “WITCH HUNT!,” I decided that if we were going to analyze the terms’ current use in relation to Miller’s allegory of the Witch Hunt, we were going to have to do it on the “down low,” as the cool kids call it these days.

So I reconceived the conversations that I had imagined us having as a class into a small group assignment. As we discussed the text The Crucible in class, students would keep track of key pieces of information in Miller’s Salem Witch Trials. I created a graphic organizer that prompted students to identify accusers, accused, of what the accused were accused, and the types of evidence. I also asked them to think about whether the evidence is based on fact, fear, or personal grievances.

In other words, they would ask “is this a Witch Hunt”? Then, they’d research corresponding information about the McCarthy trials and ask the same questions. So far, we’re just talking about The Crucible. So everybody should be safe.

Next, the group will select a 21st-century issue and ask the same questions.

I’m asking students to be as specific as possible so that they have concrete evidence that they can examine.

This is where things may get dicey. There may be controversy – but at this point, the students just need to gather what they deem to be reliable evidence together. I’m hoping this may allow them to discuss a controversial 21st-century issue, even the issue that looms most prominently in my mind – the Russia investigation of the 45th President of the United States. But to require them to examine this issue doesn’t feel right for a number of reasons.

Finally, based on their group research, students will write a short essay that answers the question – are the accusations real, or are they fake – or “Is it a Witch Hunt?” Answering this question individually will permit members of the group to come to different conclusions if and when they disagree on how to assess the evidence.

And once I’ve had time to read and digest my students’ work, I’ll get back to you with a follow-up letter, College Professor. I’ll let you know what happened. Because during the roughly year and a half that will pass before my students become your students, my students will mature a lot. Their brains will grow. But they’ll still be the same people, with hopefully more developed critical thinking skills but quite possibly a very similar worldview to the one they have now. I want to help you know what to expect in case you ever try to teach anything you find politically relevant to the present day. Because I’m here to help.

As is always the case when we try something new as teachers, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Do you know what’s going to happen? Do you have any advice? If so, let me know in the comments.

Thanks for listening to me for so long. I’ll see you later.

Clay Zuba is an English Teacher at Xavier College Preparatory High School in Phoenix, Arizona, where he teaches American Literature and writing. In 2016, he was awarded a Ph.D. in American literature at the University of Delaware. His acclaimed blog love7g.com about Nathaniel Hawthorne is a precursor to his upcoming historical novel Love in the House of the Seven Gables.