October 30, 2006

Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools, part two: examining their recommendations

Posted in Censorship, Education, Literature, Musings at 12:38 pm by The Lizard Queen

Ah-ha, I bet you thought I was never going to get back to this, eh?

There is a petition that appears on the Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools’ website that asks that fourteen books be removed from the curricula of Blue Valley schools. Their argument is that these books “do not pass the selection criterion of Blue Valley policy 4600 which states: ‘The absence of vulgar language, sexual explicitness, or violent imagery that is gratuitously employed.'” The books they would like removed are the following: All the Pretty Horses, Animal Dreams, The Awakening, The Bean Trees, Beloved, Black Boy, Going After Cacciato, Hot Zone, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Lords of Discipline, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Song of Solomon, Stotan, and Boy’s Life (I think perhaps they mean Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life). They suggest the following “educationally rich replacements”: The Count of Monte Cristo, David Copperfield, Don Quixote, The Good Earth, Ivanhoe, The Last of the Mohicans, The Mill on the Floss, Moby Dick, The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Return of the Native, Robinson Crusoe, Silas Marner, Treasure Island, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

There are some interesting connections in each list. Of the twelve authors in the first list, that of challenged books, there are four women, eight men; three African Americans, nine Caucasians. With two exceptions, these books were all published in the last half of the twentieth century. By contrast, of the fourteen authors in the second list, three are women, and the cynic in me can’t help but wonder how many of the parents in question realize that George Eliot was a woman. There is one (cynic: “token”) African American. All but two of the books were published in the nineteenth century or before. All of the challenged authors are American; only four of the recommended authors are, the rest being European.

Perhaps more importantly, I can’t help but see a thematic link in the first list: most of these books challenge the status quo of America (and perhaps western civilization in general) in some way. I’ve read a handful of the books on each list (and I’ve written a 12-page paper supporting the use of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in schools, so I have an obvious bias, if you haven’t already noticed), but I was perhaps most interested in the review of The Awakening, which is a book I have a great deal of admiration for. When I first read it in high school, I hated it. I thought it was boring. I don’t think I even finished it, and I don’t think it’s much longer than 200 pages, so that’s saying something. So, I’m not entirely sure it should be used in high schools, either, but that’s only because I’m not entirely sure a 16-year-old can necessarily appreciate its complexities, as I’d be afraid a teacher would present the feminist and anti-feminist angles but wouldn’t touch on the novel’s naturalism, which I think gives the novel its most compelling reading. But, I digress. The CLSS’s complaint about the book is that it contains “content such as adultery (with no remorse), suicide, and extreme sensuality. It is another dark, depressing book.” They’re careful to point out that “The book was widely criticized for its frank, open discussion of the emotional and sexual ‘needs’ of women”… and, of course, the use of quotation marks there jumped out at me. Emotional and sexual “needs”? Hmm. The review goes on to quote Lewis Leary, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who states that the novel is “one of Mrs. Chopin’s more successful examinations…whether marriage is or is not ‘a wonderful and powerful agent in the development and formation of a woman’s character” and that “the submission of women and their struggle against submitting is a theme which pervades much, perhaps all, of Mrs. Chopin’s fiction.” Set beside other quotations, such as the notation that the protagonist’s “awakening, only vaguely intellectual, is disturbingly physical,” the previous quotations seem to be warnings to parents. I’m sorry, but I fail to understand why questioning the value of marriage and depicting a woman’s struggle against submitting to the men in her life are presented as negatives. The Awakening was published over a hundred years ago, and yet its themes remain quite current. We all know today’s divorce statistics, and the fact of the matter is that roughly half of our nation’s high school students come from divorced families, so it’s more than likely that they’re already going to be questioning the institution of marriage, so why not address that in an academic setting? Why sweep it under the rug? That, ultimately, is my argument against keeping most of this material out of schools.



  1. DavidD said,

    I admit it. The scene in Catcher in the Rye where Holden hires a prostitute opened my mind to the possibility of that. It was intriguing. It was titilating. I wondered what the current rate was.

    Somehow I remained a virgin for a number of years after that, and when I became sexually active, nothing I ever read made any difference to that. I don’t even think TV, movies or pornography mattered for that. The fact that someone wanted to have sex with me mattered, and I’m quite sure no media put her up to it. It was mostly biology, that together with a subculture that saw nothing wrong with sex. She was from Hawaii. College students are so diverse.

    I try to imagine the mind of someone who doesn’t see it that way, for whom every mention of sex, especially non-marital sex will pollute a child’s mind forever. It’s not easy for me to do. It’s like the mind of a Christian father who says he would rather have his daughter die from cervical cancer should she wind up having sex with a man with HPV than give her the marginally increased awareness of sex that would come from being vaccinated against that. Better dead than hell. Sex means hell?

    I suppose if the schools were giving my children poisonous snakes to handle, I would object as these parents are objecting to these books.

    The books are not poisonous. That’s the hard part to get across to someone who insists they are.

  2. Cara M. said,

    Gosh, great suggestions, because let me tell you how The Last of the Mohicans and The Narrative of Frederick Douglas are just fantastic reads that will capture the minds and thoughts of today’s teenagers. UGH! Oh, and Moby Dick of course. 700 pages on the history of whaling is really something the kids connect to, once they stop sniggering over the name (which by the way, NEVER stops- “Miss, I forgot my Moby Dick today [teeheehe]! Miss, I LOVE Moby Dick [teeheehee]!”). At least LotM has a movie to supplement, with enough graphic violence to keep the kids into it.

    And then there’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (or This Boy’s Life, for that matter), about growing up and breaking out, and becoming your own person, which must somewhere have some foul langauge in it? or does she have sex? (it’s been a while since I read it, so I can’t remember why it fits into this banning criteria). I mean, the kids would be irreparably damaged by the bad words in a geniously written book that deals with exactly what they’re going through.

    I do admit to loving Ivanhoe when I was in school- but then I always loved those romantic Medieval stories- and also The Awakening. I don’t know…. I guess I was interested in her story and how it would turn out (sadly, of course). Also, I think the prose is like music. It’s delightful to read.

  3. Anonymous said,

    all of these books should be taught ad read.

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