October 10, 2006

Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools, part one: responding to some of their complaints

Posted in Censorship, Education, Literature, Musings at 12:09 pm by The Lizard Queen

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?

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2 Comments »

  1. DavidD said,

    I’m used to people of all sorts thinking they are better at science or medicine than I am, so I wouldn’t be surprised if parents of home-schoolers think they are better teachers than professionals are. At the same time, the few comments I’ve heard from such parents make me think they are more concerned with how monstrous other students are than how indoctrinated their own children will be by teachers.

    I also don’t think a book made me more depresed. Maybe a movie did. I’m not sure. A book doesn’t make you sit through the whole thing the way a movie does. You can take as many breaks as you want. Maybe that makes books better for challenging subjects.

    I suppose the most sociopathic stories I read were from Harlon Ellison. I didn’t feel the need to shield anyone from them. I guess there is a minimum age that one is ready for the powerlessness of something like, “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream” but I would think any teenager could handle that. I do know that I still get images from those stories, provoked by things I see in life, many of them cynical or existential to Ellison, but they can be reinterpreted in a more positive way as well.

    I have a hard time imagining how any of that would make a mental ilness worse. It gives someone a way to express feelings he or she already has. It’s not always the best spin one can put on such feelings. Maybe some violent fantasy would push another teenager into mass murder. Good books aren’t so simplistic. I’d be happy to try to divide some pile of books into “therapeutic” and “trash”, even “dangerous”, like The Turner Diaries that led to the bombing in Oklahoma City. So maybe a few books actually do deserve to be banned after all.

    I didn’t have time to be so careful with my kids. Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t have sons.

  2. Sera said,

    First, thanks for reading through those pages and posting, cause I’m terribly intrigued but doubt I can take the time to read all the info!

    I’m most struck by the “boring” complaint. Perhaps those parents should enroll in a college English class, where learning context for great literature that may appear “dull” to our modern sensibilities usually radically alters our mode of reading and understanding. As you mentioned, there are SO many books that I thought “boring” when I read them in high school, only to become enamored of them in college and grad school.

    I once had a teacher who posted two signs in her classroom. Both were those red circles with a slash over the content, and one said “Nothing,” and the other said “Boring.” Removing those words from our vocabulary, for the length of one school year, made us students more articulate. If only these parents learned to be articulate …


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