October 10, 2006
Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools, part one: responding to some of their complaints
If you haven’t yet noticed, the banning and challenging of books is a major interest of mine. So when Evil Bender wrote a post about a group called Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools, I naturally had to check out their website. And then I naturally spent much of Saturday reading their reviews of a number of books, their reasons for objecting to those books, and their suggestions for replacements. And so now I naturally would like to respond to their statements and ideas. In the interest of keeping my posts to a manageable length, I’ll be parcelling my thoughts out over a handful of posts, which will probably be spread out over a couple of days. I’ll begin with some somewhat general thoughts.
The idea that a book is boring comes up in several reviews. I’d be tempted to think of that as sour grapes, but I don’t think it is–I think the adults reading these books genuinely find them boring. I don’t begrudge them their opinion on that point; I can think of a number of books that I found boring in high school–though I often ended up loving, or at least appreciating, them as an adult. I’m able to recognize that “boring” is an extremely subjective term; just because I find something boring doesn’t mean that other people might not disagree and even very much enjoy that which I don’t.
Another frequent complaint is that a book is depressing, dark, etc. Maybe it’s just me, but I think any adult who believes that life is 100% sunshine, lollipops, rainbows and kittens smoked too much dope (or maybe not enough) in the 70s. Even the most well-adjusted adolescent from the most stable background is going to experience difficult times. Maybe it’ll be as basic as being dumped by a girlfriend or rejected by a college, but we all experience pain, and it’s generally our painful or unpleasant experiences, much more than their opposites, that shape us into interesting and capable human beings. Also, disagreeable experiences tend to make much more interesting stories–traditional plots center around conflict, so if there’s no conflict, there’s no story. (Furthermore, they seem to have no problem with Dickens, who I think often presents a vision of the world just as bleak as any other writer, save probably Toni Morrison.)
One specific complaint as far as a book being depressing goes is directed at Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato: “Truth, hope, and meaning in life are nonexistent: For teens who are contemplating suicide, this book sends a deadly message: Life and choice are meaningless anyway; go ahead and end it.” As a person who dealt with depression as an adolescent, I can say with certainty that nothing I read in my high school English classes made me feel any worse than I already felt. There can even be a certain comfort in reading about someone else’s troubles; you can think, “well, things are shitty, but at least I’m not in Vietnam.” Finally, if a parent thinks their child is depressed to the point of being suicidal, then they should not be wasting their time trying to get books banned from the school’s reading list or library; they should be focusing on their child. (But hey, I’m not a parent, so I could be wrong.)
Another complaint about Going After Cacciato that I think demonstrates a larger problem: “Fact and fiction are confused: This book is especially unsuitable for readers who are not already well acquainted with the subject of Vietnam.” This tells me that these parents have no faith in their children’s teachers to explain that a work is, in fact, fiction, and to explain a book’s context and subject matter for those students who might not be familiar with such things. I can’t help but wonder how many of these parents took the time to schedule a conference with their child’s English teacher to go over their concerns about the book and ask why the teacher feels the book is important. Unless that teacher is woefully unqualified, which I doubt is the case in the Blue Valley school district, at any rate, he or she will most likely have a good number of concrete reasons for using the book.
On that note, here’s a closing thought for this segment: isn’t part of the basic rationale behind sending your children to school instead of homeschooling them the idea that a professional educator would be better trained and equipped to educate your children then you are?