By Sandhya Bathija
When members of the Republic School Board of Education in Missouri voted 4-0 to remove Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five from its curriculum, I’ll bet they had no idea the backlash they’d receive.
But it just goes to show, making a stink of things can really go a long way. Thanks to Americans United and our allies (including the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library!), the board has now agreed to reconsider its misguided decision.
You may recall that back on July 25, board members ceded to a complaint from a town resident (who didn’t even have children in the district!) that Vonnegut’s book and a second volume, Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler, were contrary to the Bible’s teaching and should be removed.
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AU’s Rob Boston criticized the board’s actions on The Wall of Separation on Aug. 2. He said it’s unfortunate – and probably unconstitutional — that the school board didn’t stand up for church-state separation and the freedom to learn.
A couple weeks later, we joined the National Coalition Against Censorship and seven other organizations in signing a letter urging the school superintendent and school board members to reconsider their decision.
“We urge you to provide students with an education that exposes them to challenging materials and diverse ideas and beliefs, that prepares them to make their own judgments, and that teaches them to respect the opinions of others,” the letterasserted. “That is at the core of our system.”
The letter pointed out that only one of the four voting board members had even read the book, noting that one resident’s complaint should not provide the basis for censorship. Rather, the board should consider the fact that Vonnegut’s book has been recognized for its significant literary and artistic merit, ranking No. 18 on the Modern Library’s list of top 100 novels.
“Focusing on the literary and pedagogical value of library and curricular materials is the best way to serve your students, resolve disputes over values and preferences, and protect the district from legal liability,” the letter insisted. “Please return the books to the classrooms and library shelves where they belong.”
Others who signed the letter include: Joan Bertin, executive director, National Coalition Against Censorship; Judith Platt, director, Free Expression Advocacy Association of American Publishers; Lin Oliver, executive director, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators; Chris Finan, president, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression; Larry Siems, director, Freedom to Write & International Programs, PEN American Center; Millie Davis, division director, National Council of Teachers of English; Doug Bonney, chief counsel and legal director, ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri; and Alex Koroknay-Palicz, executive director, National Youth Rights Association.
Even the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis got involved. It announced that thanks to a generous anonymous donor, it would provide free copies of the classic to 150 of the Republic School District’s students.
Perhaps now the board will see that making decisions based on one resident’s interpretation of the Bible is simply not the way a public school should handle things.
We’ll keep you posted.