Issue 115, Winter 2011
In Republic, MO there’s a battle going on over the hearts and minds – and religion and morality – of public school students. The complaint that started the debate says:
It is an abomination to God to expose children to books like Slaughterhouse Five . . . It is difficult to understand how a school board and school administration that claims to be Christian and profess Jesus Christ can expose children to such immoral and vulgar content.
In response, the board of education decided to adopt “standards” for books for use in the curriculum and library. Regular readers of CN will probably anticipate what comes next: the “standards” are designed with the sole purpose of disqualifying books that contain certain kinds of content: profanity, violence, sexual content, and references to drugs, alcohol and tobacco.
Apparently, the unknown reviewers are instructed to scour the book page by page looking for any mention of the taboo content. For example, the analysis of Slaughterhouse Five, which resulted in being banned from the classroom and put under severe restrictions in the library (only parents may check the book out), contained a list of “Profanity/Crude Language.”
The list included “bitchy,” “cleavage,” “penis,” “wet dream,” “wang,” “bag,” “balls,” and “bastard,” along with the more usual suspects. The review noted that the word “fuck” appeared 15 times, sometimes twice on one page, but many of the words on the list were used only once. Objectionable phrases included “He had a prophylactic kit containing two tough condoms,” and “pencil drawing of a woman’s breasts.” The review of another banned book, Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler, contained two and a half pages of “objectionable” phrases.
Imagine reading a book highlighting only “objectionable” material! You’d miss the forest for the trees, and indeed that’s exactly what happened in these reviews. The Republic School Board is apparently less interested in giving students a sound education than shielding them from content some dislike. If these “standards” were applied generally, they’d eliminate literary classics by Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning authors like William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Tony Kushner and John Updike.
Deciding what books students should read in school is not like deciding what movie to see or what video game to buy. Books in school should be selected for their educational and literary value – and not for their absence of certain words or ideas.
Sadly, Republic is following a trend promoted by amateur book rating sites like factsonfiction.com and commonsensemedia.org (see CN 113). These sites play to parental anxieties by flagging and in some cases focusing disproportionately on content that someone might consider “inappropriate”. They may be well-intentioned but the result is that they discourage reading and they encourage a dumbed-down approach to literature. If Republic is any indication, they’re succeeding.