Last year a battle over removing ‘controversial’ books from a Texas high school made national news. And that fight isn’t over; last week came news that a formal challenge has been filed by one parent who does not think a non-fiction account of the lives of poor people is appropriate reading material.
In September of 2014, seven books were removed from the Recommended Outside Reading (ROR) list at Highland Park High School, due to complaints from parents who objected to some of the themes in the work. The list included The Art of Racing in the Rain, The Glass Castle, The Working Poor: Invisible in America, Siddhartha, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, An Abundance of Katherines, and Song of Solomon. Two books–Nineteen Minutes and The Perks of Being a Wallflower–had been removed from the same list that summer.
Superintendent Dawson Orr reversed the suspensions in late September. But that wasn’t the end; some parents proposed that the school should have to notify parents about any assigned works that could include”potentially objectionable content.” As NCAC pointed out at the time, the proposal to red-flag certain content “misconstrues both the legal rights of parents and the duties of public school officials.” The coalition urged the Highland Park school district to “reject any proposal to restrict the curriculum of students to accommodate the views, values and preferences of some, and instead to rely on the professional judgment of educators.”
While the district continues to work on a new policy governing book selection and challenges, a Highland Park couple filed a formal complaint over the book The Working Poor, David Shipler’s non-fiction account of people living near the poverty line. The book, which has been assigned to students in Advanced Placement English classes, includes some discussions of abortion and sexual abuse, specifically in the context of the foster care system. The complaint argues that “abortion, sexual orientation, and rape have no place in the high school classroom and especially under the guise of Honors English.”
Some accounts of the controversy couldn’t help but notice the irony of a fight over whether students in one of the state’s wealthiest school districts should read a book about poor people. As the Dallas Morning News pointed out, the school’s English department saw the book as as “a means to build students’ capacity for empathy and knowledge of an issue facing millions in America and millions more across the world.” As the author of the book, David Shipler, told the Dallas Morning News:
There’s nothing prurient, obscene or sexually explicit in the book….The women who told me they had been sexually abused as children told me that because they felt the trauma was relevant to their lasting problems.
The parents who filed the challenge offered some alternatives– selections that illustrate one of the problems with efforts to mollify objecting parents. Two of the recommended titles– Nothing to Fear by Jackie French Koller and Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse– are generally well-regarded works, but are considered more appropriate for less advanced readers.
They also recommended a work by libertarian ideologue Ayn Rand and a recent book by Ben Carson, a fixture on the Fox News Channel and other conservative media outlets. His book has received no serious critical praise; in fact the most notable discussion about it has been the charge that passages were plagiarized.
At its January 20 meeting, the district’s trustees delayed a vote on the new policies for selecting books.
The NCAC will continue to monitor developments in Highland Park.