Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Book Choices Likely to be School Board Election Topic [Washington]

An article was brought to my attention this morning from the Tri-City Herald.  The article, by Jacques Von Lunen, highlights the role that classroom book selections are about to play when electing new members of the Richland School Board: 
Long-standing controversies about which novels should be offered to Richland students are bound to spill into this fall's school board elections. 
At least one incumbent on the board has drawn a challenger who has promised to change the criteria used to select literature used in English classes. Another challenger is a member of the district's book selection committee.
While not everyone running for the positions is concerned about the books being chosen for inclusion in Advanced English courses in the district, two candidates have said that the subject played a role in their decision to run.  The man with the most investment in this issue is Dave Serell:
[T]he district still does not use enough caution in its book choices, said Dave Serell, who is running for the seat held by Rick Donahoe. 
Serell targeted Donahoe specifically because of the books Donahoe voted in favor of while on the school board, Serell said. 
"The main issue for me is that some of the books (the board members) have approved seem inappropriate for students," Serell said. "I have a different view than what they decided in the last two years." 
Books used in school should "instill positive values" rather than "drag people down," he said.
While I do not have a problem with book selection being a factor in the decision to run for a school board position, what I do have a problem with is unsubstantiated arguments against certain books.  The last statement of Serell's shows that he subscribes to the writings of people such as the lovely Mrs. Gurdon, of recent WSJ article fame.  Serell's assumptions regarding what will instill positive values are not entirely clear, but his follow-up about books that "drag people down" seems to be very much connected to Gurdon's ideas about dark books being somehow detrimental to adolescent and young adult development.  What arguments like this forget is that dark themes are not without hope (at least not all the time.)  Novels and texts with darker elements are often full of positive themes that arise from engagement with the edgier material.

I could be wrong, I have been known to be, but I think that Serell is going to be a strain on the already delicate nature of certain texts in classrooms.  Back in February of this year, there was a challenge to Snow Falling on Cedars, which was covered in another article in the Tri-City Herald.  The author of the article, Phyllis Strickler, of the school board, warns against the use of the term censorship when speaking of taking a book out of the curriculum.  I agree, to say a book is banned because it is not allowed to be taught, is a bit harsh.  But the principles behind the removal of a text can still be ridiculous, and removing a book still constitutes a challenge to the book, the basis of which can be criticized.  Strickler writes,
Several members of the Instructional Materials Committee, which makes recommendations to the school board for approval of materials, have suggested that some type of standard would be helpful in determining the appropriateness of language arts materials as many novels contain vulgar language and graphic sexual descriptions that are offensive to many
A community standard of being able to read aloud the book, without offense to self or others, might be one such standard. Another might be whether it would be acceptable language/descriptions to print in the local newspaper.
Strickler uses a lot of phrases that are incredibly subjective and would be impossible to utilize as standards for looking at books in the school curriculum.  The first issue with these "standards" is the first statement that I have highlighted in bold text: Who is going to decide what is too vulgar and too graphic?  One person might feel that teens in bed kissing is too graphic and "damn" is far too vulgar, while another person might feel that anything aside from penetrative sex is acceptable, and "f***" is fine, as long as it's not used too many times.  Also, who are we wondering about it being offensive to?  Are we talking about the students or their parents?  The students are the ones reading the books, so personally, I think it should be their standards that are taken into account.  The parents might not like the books, but we've seen how bad it can get when the parents try to decide what's right for the classroom.  Can we say chaos?

The second problem with Strickler's standard is the idea of being able to read a book aloud without offense to self or others.  Talk about walking a tightrope!  If this is the standard, no books will make it into the curriculum every since there's bound to always be someone who will be offended by a given text.  I get the feeling that Strickler didn't think this one through before she vomited her opinion onto the page.

So what am I trying to say in this post?  I'm not against curriculum and book review committees.  I'm not against challenges to books.  It's what happens in societies with freedom of speech.  What I have a problem with is impossible standards that simply dilute the learning process and put innocence on a pedestal as if teens are going to be terribly corrupted by an instance of sex or coarse language in a novel. Teens are smarter than we think.  Let them read a good book for a class and let them decide if it's too much for them!  Granted I'm talking about Middle School and High School, but these articles are regarding Advanced English classes.  One would hope if the kid is intelligent enough to be in such a class, they're able to read a book without falling apart or running to their parents at the first mention of sexy times.

*head shake*  I think I went a bit off topic.  Whoops!

Questions, rants, hate-mail?  That's what the comments section is for :)

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