You CAN Teach a Sneetch: Dr. Seuss and Conversations about Social Responsibility

Authors: Sam Diener

Sam Diener is Co-Editor of Peacework and a former coordinator of the Stories Project at Educators for Social Responsibility, which teaches conflict resolution using children's literature. Illustrations on pp. 12-13 are from The Sneetches & Other Stories (Random House).

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There are several basic social responsibility concepts I attempt to share as both a parent and a teacher. Like others who work and play with children, I hope to convey ways to think critically, empathize with everyone, resolve conflicts collaboratively, confront the abuse of power, speak up for fairness, live with (instead of against) our natural environment, and understand the damaging effects of violence.

Often, conversations about these themes are well-sparked by works of literature. Almost no matter the ideology of the author, the act of reading fiction calls on us as readers to identify with (and thus have empathy for) at least one character. Talking about conflicts and dilemmas as they arise in works of literature is often less fraught than the sometimes blame-filled discussions following actual conflicts in our lives.

While most of us delight in the works of Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) for the books' sense of fun, fantastical creatures, indelible meter, and creative rhymes, I also enjoy many of Dr. Seuss' works as springboards to constructively discuss political themes with young people -- and older people, too. The documentary film, The Political Dr. Seuss, quotes Geisel as saying he considered himself "subversive as hell."

Our child, Sasha, who is five, has never seen a Star Wars movie, but knows about a few of its characters and plotlines. He asked me one day, "How come you don't like Princess Leia? She's one of the good guys." (One of our ongoing dialogues is whether anyone is all good or all bad.) I explained that I don't dislike Leia as a (pretend) person, but I didn't like it that people thought she was more important than others just because she was born into a royal family.

Remember Dr. Seuss' Yertle the Turtle (1950)? "Yeah," Sasha said, "King Yertle was so mean." I asked, "How was Yertle mean?" "He ordered the other turtles to stand in a stack and stood on top of them." I replied, "Well, I don't like the power of kings and queens and princes and princesses, because they order around everyone in a whole country." Judith Morgan, a Geisel biographer, reports in The Political Dr. Seuss that Geisel originally drew a Hitler-style mustache on Yertle, but decided that was too heavy-handed. Geisel also (wisely) wanted to universalize Yertle into a general symbol of abusive power -- and of how brittle such power is when those stacked below start to object.

According to Morgan, Theodor Geisel may have been motivated to ask questions about abusive power when, as a child in Springfield, MA during World War I, he was called a "Hun" by other kids who, influenced by wartime propaganda, attacked him based on his German-American heritage.

It's hard not to see the influence of that experience in what I regard as Dr. Seuss's best work, The Sneetches (1961). In it, star-bellied Sneetches discriminate against Sneetches with "no stars upon thars." Geisel wrote it, according to Ron Lamothe, the writer and director of The Political Dr. Seuss, in order to confront anti-Semitism in an abstract way. Most commentary about the book focuses solely on his critique of the absurdity of this discrimination.

I agree with the historian Michael Kazin, who criticizes Geisel for championing assimilation instead of celebrating diversity. The story concludes with praise for Sneetches who supposedly "forgot about stars." Geisel also, perhaps problematically, describes the non-star-bellied Sneetches excluded from the frankfurter roasts "as moping and doping alone on the beaches." The illustration, however, shows a large group of non-star bellied Sneetches. They're clearly not alone. Did Geisel internalize prejudice against the non-star bellied himself, or was he cleverly illuminating the process of internalized oppression through which they felt alone and believed themselves to be stupid because they weren't included by those whom their society valued?

But the crux of the story, and its political brilliance, is the role of Sylvester McMonkey McBean, who offers the plain-bellied Sneetches a trip through his star-on machine for "three dollars eaches." Once they've paid their money, McBean turns to the original star-bellies and declares, "Star bellies are no longer in style," and offers them a trip through his star-off machine -- for "ten dollars eaches." McBean quickly induces all the Sneetches to tear around desperately, going through first one machine and then the other -- making him rich.

I've read this with high school students in workshops and asked them, "Who is Sylvester McMonkey McBean in your lives?" The answers come fast: "Seventeen Magazine. Nike. Music videos. Makeover shows." I ask, "How much did Nike pay you to drape their logo on your body?" The students respond that they paid more for clothing with the logo, not less. Exactly. When asked whom the McBeans are attacking with their messages, there is no hesitation, "'fat' people, girls and women, 'geeks,' gays, ethnic minorities." The Sneetches is a description of the role of corporate advertising, and the relationship between capitalism and advertising, worthy of Adbusters magazine.

Theodor Geisel's critique of capitalism was amplified by his 1971 ecological parable, The Lorax, which Geisel described as the favorite of his books. In it, he illustrates the consequences of unchecked industrialism for the ecosystem. As the "barbaloots" who live near the polluting and ever-expanding factory are forced to flee to avoid starvation, the owner of the business ("the Onceler") explains, "Business is business! And business must grow, regardless of crummies in tummies, you know." Geisel illustrates how, as Edward Abbey pointed out, the logic of capitalist growth is the logic of the cancer cell. It's a sad tale, leavened with a literal seed of hope at the end. The Onceler himself, living in the devastation created by his now-abandoned factory, challenges his listener(s): "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."

Geisel did not always live up to the humanistic ideals he advanced in these books. In 1942, just two weeks after Attorney General Biddle announced the removal of so-called "enemy aliens" from the Pacific Coast region, and just six days before Roosevelt's infamous Executive Order 9066 authorizing the internment of Japanese-Americans living in those areas, Geisel published one of a series of political cartoons with racist, anti-Japanese-American, content. On February 13, he published his "Waiting for the Signal From Home...." cartoon in PM, which depicted stereotypically drawn Japanese-Americans as a fifth column, lining up as a horde of nearly identical faces to receive bricks of dynamite while one man spies through a telescope pointed across the Pacific. The viciousness of the caricature encapsulated many of the arguments for internment at that critical juncture, claiming that Japanese-Americans were just waiting for a signal from the Japanese government before waging war against the US.

While the Sneetches taught about the interaction between discrimination and capitalism, Horton Hears a Who (1954) is Dr. Seuss' exploration of genocide. I wonder if he wrote it partially in apology for his racist cartoons. In the book, an elephant named Horton discovers a city full of miniature people (the Whos) living on a dust-speck. Horton tries to prevent the rest of the animals in the forest from boiling the dust-speck, and with it, everyone living in Whoville. Michael Frith, an editor at Random House, says that Geisel wrote it partially to urge the US government to listen to the people of Japan even as the US military occupied that country in the post-war period. Geisel dedicated Horton to a friend from Japan. Horton endures many travails in order to save the targeted Whos, and galvanizes them to band together and make their voices heard. I've used this text in college classes to spur discussions about nonviolent resistance to genocide, the challenge of motivating allies to speak up, and how we might act nonviolently to prevent incipient genocide.

Geisel's critique of escalatory violence in general and nuclear weapons in particular was amplified by The Butter Battle Book (1984), his parable about the murderously suicidal nature of arms races. The Zax (published in the same volume as The Sneetches) addresses similar themes of escalation: A South Going Zax and a North Going Zax bump into each other in the Prairie of Prax and refuse to take a step to one side to enable them to continue on their way. In conflict transformation workshops, it's been useful to ask groups of students to act out the roles of the contending Zax, to map the escalation step by step, and then challenge them to act out better (win-win) alternatives. The conversations about the situations where we find ourselves acting like Zax, and ways to flip the script, are often both amusing and illuminating.

In Geisel's work, as in so much of young children's literature, female characters are rarely active, except those who stand out for their vanity or heartlessness. Among human characters in Dr. Seuss's books for children, none are people of color. These are important flaws in books to which children and parents turn, generation after generation, for enjoyment and instruction. Furthermore, since for large sections of the US population the most popular Dr. Seuss books are considered part of cultural literacy, their skewed messages have a wide impact. An enterprising and quick-thinking adult can alter the stories, with a colored pencil or a quick pronoun switch while reading aloud, but sooner or later it becomes important to make the problems, too, part of our literature-based conversations about social responsibility.

Theodor Geisel hoped his books could assist in efforts at constructive social change: "I don't think my book is going to change society. But I'm naive enough to believe that society will be changed by the examination of ideas through books and the press, and that information can prove to be greater than the dissemination of stupidity. I think that can happen." If we take his books seriously enough to listen, care, and take action, Dr. Seuss' books can indeed help us change the world.

For More Information

Order Ron Lamothe's documentary, The Political Dr. Seuss (2004) at www.pbs.org/independentlens

The Stories Project at Educators for Social Responsibility: www.esrnational.org

For a curriculum and list of books for teaching children about conflict transformation through literature, visit www.morningsidecenter.org/4rsbooks.html.


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