Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Asking About Life, Part 3

To: Members of School Board of Knox County, Tennessee

Dear School Board Member:

I read with dismay of the recent attempt at censorship in your school district against Tobin and Dusheck's biology textbook Asking About Life. I urge the School Board to respect the Establishment and Free Speech clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by retaining the book in classroom curricula.

I have reviewed the contested section of the textbook, and find nothing that raises the slightest concern about its fairness, its scientific or historical accuracy, or its suitability for educational purposes. Tennessee State education standards require teaching evolution in Biology II and Advanced Placement Biology, and it is impossible to fulfill this mandate without offending the religious sensibilities of some constituents.

By removing Asking About Life from the curriculum, the board will be violating the constitutional rights of students, parents, and teachers in at least two ways. First, you will be subordinating sound scientific education to one particular religious perspective, an entanglement with religion that a public school, as an agency of government, cannot engage in. Secondly, you will be censoring a book on the basis of of the board's sense of religious or political orthodoxy, something a school board cannot do, regardless of the subject matter in question.

Before you make your decision, I urge the board to seek competent legal advice about the applicability of prior court decisions to the specifics of the situation at hand. Hopefully, the school district has its own attorney or has access to the county's attorney. I suggest giving careful consideration to the implications of the Kitzmiller v. Dover (400 F. Supp. 2d 707) and Edwards v. Aguillard (482 U.S. 578) decisions regarding creationism and the teaching of science in public schools. Consideration should also be given to Minarcini v. Strongsville (541 F.2d 577) and Board V. Pico (457 U.S. 853), to name but two precedents that establish limits on the power of school boards to censor books in an attempt to enforce ideological orthodoxy.

If the board makes the wrong choice by removing Asking About Life from curricula, it will only take one aggrieved parent to drag the district into a costly lawsuit that the district is almost certain to loose. Please give careful consideration to the budgetary implications of your decision.

Thank you for your consideration.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Part 2

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a magnificent book. Although this is a novel, author Sherman Alexie draws heavily on his real-life experiences, giving the book an autobiographical flavor. The story is written from the perspective of a 14-year-old boy, and is intended for a young adult audience. Nevertheless, adult readers will find the book both touching and eye-opening.

The story is told from the perspective of a teenage boy growing up on an Indian reservation in Washington state. Seeking educational opportunities outside the reservation, he starts attending an all white school 22 miles away. He suddenly finds himself to be a teen without an identity, the “other” no matter where he goes, the one brown face at school, perceived as a traitor by many back home on the reservation. The differences in expectations and economic opportunity on and off of the reservation are starkly explored, in terms of both race and class. The evils of alcoholism are made plain, as they cause the protagonist tragic losses. But with all the struggles and losses, the story ends on a positive note, as he finds greater self-acceptance, and acceptance by others in both of the worlds in which he lives.

A reviewer for the School Library Journal wrote, “this kind of subject matter requires a seemingly effortless mixture of laughter and tears. Sherman Alexie manages to deliver this.” I heartily concur, having found the book illuminating, entertaining, and heart-rending all at once.  This is also the kind of book educators love, since it can be mined for endless discussion topics. It is for these kinds of reasons that the book has won many awards, including a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, The New York Times Notable Children’s Books of 2007, The Los Angeles Times Favorite Children’s Books of 2007, and School Library Journal Best Books of 2007.  On April 12th, the Walla Walla County Rural Library District began giving away 200 copies of the novel to teenagers who visited library branches.

It is not at all clear to me why the Stockton, Missouri, school district banned this book. One news article stated it was due to “violence, language and some sexual content,” but that is hard to believe.  The book does contain a fair amount of rough language, reflecting the way teenage boys interact with each other. But compared to what is heard in real-life high school hallways, the author has shown restraint. Violence in the book is in no way glorified, is not portrayed in any detail, and there’s far less of it than one might see in an hour of prime-time television. Sexual content is limited to a few references to erections and masturbation, also not described in any detail.

I suspect that the book makes some parents and administrators uncomfortable because of the social, political, and religious commentary that is sometimes woven into the story. If I were to pick one passage most likely to rouse the ire of a censor, I’d bet on page 155. It has no violence, strong language, or sexual content at all.  But it does include the following:

“Now, in the old days, Indians used to be forgiving of any kind of eccentricity.  In fact, weird people were often celebrated.
“Epileptics were often shamans because people just assumed that God gave seizure-visions to the lucky ones.
“Gay people were seen as magical, too.
“I mean, like in many cultures, men were viewed as warriors and women were viewed as caregivers. But gay people, being both male and female, were seen as both warriors and caregivers.
“Gay people could do anything. They were like Swiss Army knives!
“My grandmother had no use for all the gay bashing and homophobia in the world, especially among other Indians.
“’Jeez,’ she said. ‘Who cares if a man wants to marry another man? All I want to know is who’s going to pick up all the dirty socks?’
“Of course, ever since white people showed up and brought along their Christianity and their fear of eccentricity, Indians have gradually lost all of their tolerance.
“Indians can be just as judgmental and hateful as any white person.
“But not my grandmother.
“She still hung onto that old-time Indian spirit, you know?”

An able educator could easily turn just this passage into an hour of classroom discussion, exploring the assumptions the protagonist is making about human nature, sexual orientation, and differences in cultural values.  The idiots running the schools in Stockton, Missouri, have chosen to deny their students this educational opportunity. 

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Of Mice and Men

John Steinbeck was a major American writer, a winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a Nobel Prize for Literature, who gave us The Grapes of WrathEast of Eden, and Cannery Row, to name but a few of his notable works. Each of his novels captures the essence and atmosphere of a particular time and place, often exploring the hard lives of poorer Americans in difficult circumstances. His portraits of Americana have been bestsellers, have won numerous literary awards, and have been adapted to the cinema, television, and the stage. They are studied in high school and college literature courses throughout the U.S, and the English-speaking world. 

Not that any of that gives the censors even a moment's pause.

And so it goes with Of Mice and Men, a short yet deep work by a literary giant, available in paperback and library binding, Ebook format and audio, with optional Spark Notes and Cliff Notes. Educators find Of Mice and Men to be an excellent tool for teaching literature because it is clear yet profound, and because its lean simplicity makes it easy to show students how structure supports theme (see the discussion in H. N. Foerstel's Banned In the USA, pp. 197-199). Of course, it is banned, challenged, and censored. A lot. It held sixth position on the American Library Association's list of the top 100 challenged books for the decade 1990-1999, and moved up to fifth place for the decade 2000-2009.

I've just re-read Of Mice and Men, and found myself wondering what could possibly possess anyone to censor it. Most of us are familiar with the story, having seen one or another movie or TV version, even if we've never read it. Yes, it's depressing; it is a tragedy after all (note to censors: that's a genre of serious literature). It's a look into the character of men who are loners, fending for themselves without family or friends, a look into what happens when people who can't afford to dream dare to dream. The characters of the story are coarse, and they sometimes employ coarse language, though nowhere near as much as a portrayal of such characters might have included. Dated racial epithets are used, but form part of the realistic portrayal of a certain segment of American society in the 1930s. The violence in the story, far from extreme, is the result of circumstances, lack of opportunity, and personal responsibility. It is never glorified or exalted. References to sex are quite indirect.

D. B. Sova, in her volume on Literature Suppressed on Social Grounds, documents more than 35 challenges from 1974 through 2003, mostly revolving around the use of the book in English classes in grades 7 and higher. Typical complaints refer to profane language, racial slurs, and taking the Lord's name in vain. One can only assume that the occasional complaints of "lurid passages about sex" were made by individuals who simply had not read the book. In 1992, in Hamilton, Ohio, a group of parents actually counted 108 profanities and 12 racial slurs (different reviewers come of with different counts, since they don't agree with each other about which terms are or are not profane). A minister addressing the school board said the book should be burned. In 1994 a school superintendent in Putnam County, Tennessee, removed the book from classrooms. The school board in George County, Mississippi, voted to ban the book in 2002, and in 2003 the book was removed from all classrooms and school libraries in Lucedale, Mississippi.

The challenges continue unabated. A 2008 article in USA Today adds instances in Greencastle-Antrim (PA) schools in 2006, Newton (IA) schools in 2007, and Olathe (KS) schools in 2007. The Olathe school district voted to retain Of Mice and Men, ostensibly on the book's own merits. It is possible, though, that the Olathe board knew a bit more about Free Speech law than many school boards, their 1995 predecessors having had their wrists slapped by a US District Court after they removed copies of Annie on my Mind from the school library (Case v. Unified School District, 908 F.Supp. 864).

Objections to Of Mice and Men rarely come from teachers or librarians, people who actually know something about literature, the role of literature in education, and protections of Free Speech. One might make allowances for the occasional parent, not so enlightened, to raise an objection to this or any work. But Of Mice and Men is nowhere near as offensive as its frequent banning and attempted banning would suggest. We can conclude that this is one of those books that has got on some list of "inappropriate" books somewhere, and is then recycled from one non-reader to another non-reader, the blind leading to blind. A school board is supposed to know better than that. They're supposed to appreciate that great books have an important role in education, and they're supposed to know at least a little bit about Free Speech in schools. It is unethical and incompetent for a school board to kowtow to each and every illiterate cretin's request to reduce our children's education to milquetoasty pablum.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Minarcini v. Strongsville

Kurt Vonnegut’s apocalyptic novel Cat’s Cradle is not one of the most frequently challenged of challenged books, but it is an interesting example, both because of the motivations behind the attempted censorship of it, and because of the court decision that censorship led to.

First published in 1963, Cat’s Cradle is one of Vonnegut’s many satirical observations of the human condition. Using fiction as a metaphor for current events, it deals with the relationship between technology and society, religion and society, economic development, and the arms race. Ice-nine, a mysterious substance invented by scientists without thought to its consequences, is a transparent metaphor for nuclear weaponry.

The usual objections are unsupportable in this case. Some strong language appears, but is quite limited. The gerundive of the “F” word is rendered as “fugging,” which isn't much of a disguise, but must have made some censors happy. There are a few minor and very indirect references to sexual activity, but nothing approaching a description of any such act. Even though, operatically, everybody winds up dead in the end, there is no violence at all.

Objections to the book have more to do with its political and religious perspective. Its primary political stance is one against war, with some focus on the darker side of capitalism, although it is far from anti-American.  Oddly, Cat’s cradle is listed in N. J. Karolides’ volume Literature Suppressed on Political Grounds, rather than the companion volume, Literature Suppressed on Religious Grounds, by M. Bald. Vonnegut's well-known secularism is readily apparent in the text. Although carefully crafted as cynicism about the invented and fictional religion of Bokononism, it is clear that all religions are being portrayed as so much hokum.

In 1972, the School District of the City of Strongsville, Ohio, decided to remove Cat’s Cradle from classroom curricula and the school library, also taking action against Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Unsurprisingly, some students and their parents, with the assistance of the ACLU, sued the district in a case known as Minarcini v. Strongsville City School District (541 F.2d 577, U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, 1976).  The school district won a first round, but lost on appeal.

Minarcini v. Strongsville anticipates later decisions such as Right to Read Defense Committee v. School Committee of the City of Chelsea (1978, 454 F. Supp. 703), Board of Education v. Pico (1982, 457 U.S. 853), Case v. Unified School District (1995, 908 F.Supp. 864), and Counts v. Cedarville School District (2003, 295 F.Supp.2d 996). In Minarcini the court acknowledged the broad power of school boards to regulate the informational content of schools, and cautioned that courts should not interfere with that power unless a board’s actions “directly and sharply implicate basic constitutional values.” Such a direct and sharp implication is exactly what the court found the board had committed, given the uncontested literary value of the challenged book, and the absence of any claim of obscenity (one of the few legitimate grounds for removing a book from a school library).

Even today, censorship proponents like to claim that removing a book from a library or classroom isn’t really censorship, since the removed book will remain available elsewhere. This ridiculous and self-serving redefinition of the term censorship has been done away with in a number of court cases, including this one. In Minarcini, the court accused the school board of attempting “to censor the school library," and wrote:

“Further, we do not think this burden is minimized by the availability of the disputed book in sources outside the school. Restraint on expression may not generally be justified by the fact that there may be other times, places, or circumstances available for such expression.”

The court’s final decision was:

“. . . to declare the School Board resolutions of August 19, 1972 and August 31, 1972, null and void as violative of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and to direct the members of the Strongsville School Board to replace in the library the books with which these resolutions dealt . . .”

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Frustratingly short reports on KSPR and KTTS news tell that the Stockton School District (Missouri) has banned (the term used by the news articles) Sherman Alexie's Young Adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indianthe winner of a 2007 National Book Award. Apparently, the book had been in use in classrooms there for some time, but when a parent complained about "violence, language, and some sexual content," the board decided to remove it. The articles don't mention if the book was reviewed by a committee, and whether or not the board's decision accepted or rejected the committee's recommendations. The KTTS article does note that some teachers who used the book in their classrooms disagreed with the board's decision.

The district superintendent recalled that in her 5-year tenure there one other book, by Nicholas Sparks, was also banned. The news stories are unclear as to which of Sparks' titles was banned, Message in a Bottle or The Notebook.

We hope for more detailed new coverage soon.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

ALA Updates Lists of Banned and Challenged Books

In a press release dated 14 April, the American Library Association published its Top Ten List of the most frequently challenged books of 2009.  At the same time, a list of the 100 Most Banned/Challenged Books in the decade 2000-2009 was added to their website. Both are worth perusing.

Those who don’t read continue to attempt to control what those who do read can read.  Newcomers to the fickle wrath of the nearly literate include Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series and Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper.  On the updated list of the top 100, the Harry Potter series is now in position number 1.  A number of the top 100 have been reviewed here on this blog, including Lauren Myracle’s  TTYL, Stehphen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Robbie Harris’ It’s Perfectly Normal, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Rudolfa Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima,  Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Fond du Lac keeps One of Those Hideous Books

After three months of consideration and reconsideration, drawn out by an obstinate parent's refusal to accept the outcomes, the school board in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, has voted to retain Sonya Sones' Young Adult novel One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies. The challenge was brought in January, and a review committee recommended keeping the book in the school library, but the challenging parent insisted on appealing that decision to the board.  During the challenge process, the challenger added in at least two titles from the Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants series, which are still under consideration.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Asking About Life, Part 2

The Creationist and Censorious plot thickens in Tennessee, where the board of the Knox County School system maneuvered a delay in voting on the retention of honors biology textbook Asking About Life. Apparently, the board was leaning toward overriding the review committee and voting in favor of dropping the book from the curriculum, and the chair invoked a parliamentary rule to delay the vote for 30 days.

In terms of a creationist debate, the possible removal of a biology textbook is extraordinary in the 21st century. Even in the famous/infamous Kitzmiller v. Dover case (2005), the school board didn't try to remove a book. They sought to add statements questioning the validity of Evolution, and to make a creationist textbook available to students who sought it, but they had enough sense not to add censorship to their list of egregious errors likely to draw judicial disapproval. Even so, the U.S. district court shot them down completely.

Some creationists in Knox County, Tennessee, have far less common sense then those in Dover, Pa. They think they can actually remove a textbook because they feel it challenges their particular view of Christian dogma.

Oddly for this day and age, what is at issue is whether or not the Genesis creation story is a "biblical myth." What a ridiculous argument to have! Of course it is a myth! Whether one takes the term myth to mean a story that is false, or (more technically accurate) a story in which symbolic meanings are more important than factual content, the Genesis story is still a myth from any empirical or scientific perspective. A tale in which "night" and "day" exist before there is a sun, or in which plants grow before there is a sun, or in which the sun and stars are fixed in a "firmament," cannot be accepted as any kind of science. The Genesis story is taken as metaphor even by the majority of self-identified Christians.

At a personal level, of course, individuals have a right to believe what they wish, no matter how counter-scientific such belief may be. But creationists have no right to tell anybody else what science textbooks can say, nor can they insist that public schools avoid teaching science that challenges their particular religious beliefs. Attempting to force Creationism or Intelligent Design into school curricula, or just to weaken the teaching of the science of Evolution, have been adjudicated over and over again. The result has always been the same: public schools teach science, not one or another religious dogma.

Some of the members of the School Board in Knox County have clearly demonstrated their lack of qualifications for that job. They're in charge of public education, and yet are willing to allow their personal religious beliefs to corrupt an educational system that the law requires to be secular. They're in charge of public education, yet don't understand the scientific background of the theory of evolution. They're in charge of public education, and yet are willing to use censorship as a means to promote their personal ideologies. Why are people who've earned an "F" in education running the school?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Asking About Life

Some people just think they have a right to decide what other people read, and no amount of education seems to dissuade them. In a separate but parallel track, some people believe that the scientific Theory of Evolution is bunk, and no amount of education seems to dissuade them. The two so easily combine it is hard to keep them apart.

So it is no surprise that the parent of a high school student in Tennessee's Knox County school system has challenged an honors biology textbook that touches on evolution. One would think that Free Speech law, related court precedents, the risk of public ridicule, and the failure of the vast majority of censorship attempts would have taught everyone not to waste their own time or anybody else's. Failing that, one would think that repeated court decisions against teaching creationism in public schools would scare people away from the topic altogether. But apparently not. The parent has asked the school system to drop the book from the curriculum.  

Asking About Life by Allan J. Tobin and Jennie Dusheck is an immense textbook (about 960 pages) that covers cell biology, genetics, the physical structures of plants and animals, and includes a section on Evolution.  The parent's complaint, as reported by, is that the book is biased against Christianity in that it labels the Genesis creation story a "biblical myth."  The news article notes that "o
n page 319 of the text, the authors describe creationism as 'the biblical myth that the universe was created by the Judeo-Christian God in 7 days.'" An extensive preview of the book is available on Google Books, and the book does indeed contain the quoted phrase, albeit on page 299 rather than 319 (that might just be a difference in editions; the 3rd is online). 
A story on quotes one former science teacher as telling the board "Evolution has no good science behind it. To put it forth as if it has a good scientific explanation is to deal in mythology," a rather tired argument at this late date. It might be a shock for some who are not yet mentally ready for the 21st Century to learn both that Evolution is on a sound scientific footing and that questioning Christian dogma is not a legitimate basis for dropping textbooks from public school curricula. 

A review committee apparently has recommended the retention of the book. The parent is appealing this decision, however, and the school board is expected to vote on the matter on Wednesday night.  

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak

Back in September I posted a short article about a challenge to Laurie Halse Anderson's Novel Speak. I didn't review the book at that time, and just now read it.

Speak addresses a very difficult topic:the rape of a teenage girl and its emotional consequences. It is a touching, painful look into the mind of the victim, her feelings of shame, guilt, isolation, and above all, inability to communicate. The entire book explores her struggle to speak, to find her own feelings and give them expression, to believe she had a right to speak, to make herself heard by adults and peers who don't want to hear her, who really aren't listening. Ultimately, it is a story of healing, of trauma overcome.

The book is neither vulgar nor lurid. There are references to sexual activity, but no detailed descriptions of them. Strong words are used very occasionally, just enough to give the book some realism as a reflection of high school society. There is no glorification of violence, criminality, drugs, or alcohol. This is a book about consequences.

Speak is a powerful learning opportunity for anyone, whether reading it personally or in a classroom. Some of the things the reader might learn from it are that alcohol consumption increases the risks of becoming a victim, that a perpetrator who raped once is likely to rape again, that emotional scars are not minor just because they are hidden, that a victim needs to speak up to protect others, that a victim needs to speak up to protect herself, to heal herself, that peers and adults need to pay attention when a teenager shuts down emotionally. I can't imagine how or why anyone would want to deny these lessons to any teenager, or adult for that matter.

This is certainly my opinion as a reader, but not only mine.  Speak has been a bestseller on the New York Times and Publishers Weekly lists, a winner of the Michael L. Printz award, a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, and has been adapted into a movie.  

In September, the book was challenged but retained in Temecula, California. The author's website acknowledges challenges in Michigan, New Hampshire, Florida, Ohio, Washington, New York, and Maine. Luckily, since review committees usually include adults who actually read, challenges are mostly decided in favor of keeping the book on the shelf, in the curriculum, or wherever it was challenged.