Chancellor, New York City Department of Education
52 Chambers Street
New York, NY 10007
Dear Chancellor Klein:
We understand that Russell Banks’ novel Continental Drift has become the center of a dispute at Brooklyn Technical High School, and that a veteran teacher at the school, Todd Friedman, has been disciplined for assigning the novel to an eleventh grade student as supplemental reading. The principal, Dr. Lee McCaskill, acted in response to a parent’s complaint about sexually explicit language in a few isolated passages.
In our view, Dr. McCaskill’s actions in this situation are both constitutionally suspect and educationally unsound. Not only is the principal’s action unjustifiable on the merits, the review process he employed was defective. He acted arbitrarily, without reference to any standards for judging what kind of material will be deemed unacceptable, and even without a meaningful review of the facts, including the fact that the student was offered and declined an alternative assignment. The action was undertaken without any apparent consideration of the pedagogical value of the book, or the relevance of the "objectionable" passages to the book as a whole. Indeed, since it appears that Dr. McCaskill had not even read the book, it seems that he relied on nothing other than a parent’s complaint. This arbitrary and capricious conduct threatens and chills the rights of all teachers at Brooklyn Tech, who may justifiably fear similar disciplinary action merely on the word of a disgruntled parent.
Procedural defects are only part of the problem. Of equal concern is the pedagogical judgment displayed by the principal’s decision. Continental Drift was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 and is widely recognized as a work of significant literary and artistic merit. Its author, Russell Banks, is currently the President of the International Parliament of Writers. Mr. Banks has won many of the literary field’s most prestigious awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships, the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Ingram Merrill Award, the St. Lawrence Award for Short Fiction, the John Dos Passos Award, and the O. Henry and Best American Short Story Awards. Mr. Banks’ work has also been short listed for the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Prize and the Irish International Prize. Two of Mr. Banks’ works (Continental Drift and Cloudsplitter) have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.
The sexual content in Continental Drift represents a small but essential part of the novel, and is consistent with the kind of material that high school students frequently read. Indeed, if students were precluded from reading literature with sexual content, they would be deprived of exposure to vast amounts of important material, including Shakespeare, major religious texts such as the Bible, the works of Tolstoy, Flaubert, Joyce, Faulkner, D.H. Lawrence, and Nabokov, and contemporary books such as The Bluest Eye, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and many of the texts regularly assigned in high schools throughout New York City and State. Focusing on the sexual content, however, is misleading; Continental Drift addresses crucial themes such as social class, race, and political and social disillusionment. It is especially appropriate to the high school classroom.
Mr. Banks, who is aware of the controversy, put the matter this way: "The central themes and characters of Continental Drift and the overall arc of its two interlocking stories deal directly with the social, racial, and cultural realities that contemporary teenagers must deal with every single day. This is especially true for teenagers living in Brooklyn, NY, who must confront in a personal way the very issues of immigration and class and cultural collision that my novel dramatizes and explores." He further notes that Continental Drift is widely taught "in communities where there are large immigrant populations."
Principal McCaskill’s decision to ban the book, based on a few isolated pages rather than a reading of the book as a whole, is fundamentally at odds with an educationally-based assessment of a literary work. As the National Council of English Teachers’ Statement on Censorship and Professional Guidelines cautions, censorship may occur when parts of a book are looked at in isolation rather than as part of a larger literary whole. Dr. McCaskill’s reliance on the New York State Textbook Law is misplaced: NYSTL provides no justification for censorship of literature; it is merely a state funding mechanism for required textbooks, and in no way restricts the use of supplementary materials which are routinely used by teachers throughout New York State, and which the State Education Department encourages teachers to rely on to enrich the curriculum.
Our public educational system is based on the premise that a free and unfettered exchange of ideas is essential to both democracy and education. As the Supreme Court held in Keyishian v. Board of Education, the "classroom is peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas.’ The Nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers ‘truth out of a multitude of tongues, (rather) than through any kind of authoritative selection.’" Academic freedom operates as an important safeguard for these principles, and the ability of teachers to choose supplementary materials is integral to the creation of a vibrant and healthy learning environment. School officials are under a constitutional obligation to resist pressure to suppress controversial and/or unpopular ideas. Nor may they codify their own preferences or a parent’s restrictive view of what is "appropriate" in literature.
We appeal to you to intercede in this situation and insure that Principal McCaskill’s actions are nullified. The Department of Education can hardly afford to alienate and lose skilled teachers like Todd Friedman. More than doing justice to one dedicated teacher is at stake, however: the ability of other teachers at the school to bring into the classroom important and stimulating materials that enrich the curriculum and classroom experience, and the right of students to an educational environment that allows free and full exploration of ideas. An action like this stifles creativity and alienates the most talented teachers and impedes their recruitment; if the Department allows it to go unchecked, New Yorkers will have reason to doubt its commitment to high quality education.
National Coalition Against Censorship
American Booksellers Association for Free Expression
Director, Freedom to Write and International Programs
PEN American Center