By Laurie Higgins, Director if IFI's DSA | Illinois Family Institute
Yet another teacher-recommended novel has been challenged, this time in Antioch, IL. And yet another loss for wisdom, discernment, good taste, and morality has occurred as yet another feckless school board has arrived at the conclusion that 14-year-old students are well served by the book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie.
The novel is not utterly devoid of good qualities. It addresses some important issues regarding racial discrimination, conformity, inclusion, friendship, independence, and resilience, and it does so with heart and humor. But it also contains much to render it unsuitable for inclusion in public school curricula.
Before I proceed, I want to make it abundantly clear that not selecting a book to include in a school curriculum is not equivalent to book banning. If not selecting books did constitute book banning, then liberal English teachers and librarians are the ethical equivalent of Fahrenheit 451 firemen because they routinely engage in the "non-selection" of books.
Ironically, in Bradbury's book, it is the "hedonistic, anti-intellectual" forces in society that are burning books. Today, the hedonistic, anti-intellectuals in charge of public schools are exploiting books to promote those ideas and images that appeal to our hedonistic, anti-intellectual and baser impulses while concomitantly banning books that are more intellectually challenging.
The first serious problem, evidently not addressed by the Antioch school board, is that, other than its vulgar content, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian is written at about a fourth grade level. Any freshman teacher who recommends this for incoming freshmen reveals both a lack of confidence in the intellectual ability of fourteen-year-olds and a willingness to acquiesce to the dumbing down of academic standards. Appealing to the emotions and baser impulses of adolescents is the last refuge of a lazy, uninspiring, and un-aspiring academic scoundrel.
Second, Alexie's book contains language and ideas to which no educator should intentionally expose students. Yes, we know the drill: "This is authentic adolescent language." If the author is justified in using this language to portray authentically adolescent culture and the emotional experiences of adolescents, then surely students are justified in using this language in school in order to be authentic and to express adequately and accurately their emotional truths. Teachers too should be allowed to use this language because it also represents authentic adult language and experience. In fact, society euphemistically refers to profanity and obscenity as "adult language."
We also know that it's authentic adolescent language that all public schools prohibit. We also know that no student, teacher, administrator, or parent could read certain passages from this book over the public address system or at a school board meeting. Maybe that should be a criterion to help feckless teachers determine what books they should recommend to other people's children: If a book contains language and imagery that cannot be read aloud, used in the hallways, spoken at school board meetings, or printed in our newspapers, we it should not be recommended to students.
So, let's put The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian to the test. Let's have the Antioch High School superintendent, who thinks this book is "valuable" and "good," and school board members take turns reading passages from Alexie's book over the Antioch High School Public Address system.
Imagine Superintendent Jay Sabatino reading this passage aloud:
Yep, that's right, I admit that I masturbate.
I'm proud of it.
I'm good at it.
If there were a Professional Masturbators League, I'd get drafted number one and make millions of dollars.
And maybe you're thinking, "well, you really shouldn't be talking about masturbation in public."
Well, tough, I'm going to talk about it because EVERYBODY does it. And EVERYBODY likes it.
And if God hadn't wanted us to masturbate, then God wouldn't have given us thumbs.
So I thank God for thumbs.
Perhaps Joyce Heneberry could read this:
"Hey, Chief," Roger said. "You want to hear a joke?"
"Sure," I said.
"Did you know that Indians are living proof that nig***s f*** buffalo?"
Would Sandy Jacobs be willing to read this passage to students:
I headed over to the library bathrooms because they're usually a lot cleaner than the ones by the lunchroom.
So, okay, I'm going number two, and I'm sitting on the toilet, and I'm concentrating. I'm in my Zen mode, trying to make this whole thing a spiritual experience. I read once that Gandhi was way into his own number two. I don't know if he told fortunes or anything. But I guess he thought the condition and quality of his number two revealed the condition and quality of his life.
And would Randy Mathias feel comfortable reading this passage:
"Kid, you better keep your hands out of my daughter's panties. She's only dating you because she knows it will piss me off. So I ain't going to get pissed. And if I ain't pissed then she'll stop dating you. In the meantime, you just keep your trouser snake in your trousers and I won't have to punch you in the stomach."
Finally, here's a passage that School Board President Wayne Sobczak could read:
"Arnold, please go with Miss Warren."
I gathered up my books and followed Miss Warren out into the hallway. I was a little worried. I wondered if I'd done anything wrong. . . ."
"What's going on, Miss Warren?" I asked.
She suddenly started crying. . . .
She hugged me hard. And I have to admit that it felt pretty dang good. Miss Warren was, like fifty years old, but she was still pretty hot. . . . So I sort of, er, physically reacted to her hug.
And the thing is, Miss Warren was hugging me so tight that I was pretty sure she could feel my, er, physical reaction.
I was kind of proud, you know?
Ah, literature at its finest, most sublime, and inspiring. . . .
And how much do Antioch English teachers--who likely think of themselves as "experts," and whom others think of as of as public servants--get paid to teach such fine literature? According to Champion News, here are the 2008 salaries for these Freshman English teachers:
The Antioch High School administration attempted to justify the inclusion of this book by citing its National Book Award. This common strategy raises several important questions: What are the criteria for determining who gets this award? How many people serve on the committee that awarded this honor to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian? And what are the ideological leanings of those who made this decision?
This justification calls for a serious, open, and honest examination of the ideological monopoly that controls academia and the elite world of the arts that for decades have engaged in censorship of conservative scholarship. To offer as justification for teaching a text the garnering of literary prizes or ALA approval without acknowledging that those who award the prizes and belong to the ALA are generally of the same ideological bent is an exercise in sophistry.
What school committees, departments, administrations, school boards, the ALA, the National Education Association (NEA), and organizations that award literary prizes desperately need is the one form of diversity about which they are least concerned and to which they are least committed: ideological diversity.
Furthermore, this represents a common fallacy called an "argument from authority" which relies on the word of an expert or authority rather than on evidence. In essence the fallacy goes something like this: This teacher made the decision to teach this text, and he is a "Teacher of Distinction," or the school board has decided to allow this book to be taught because it was given an award. The fallacy lies in the fact that someone's intelligence or teaching abilities does not serve as justification for a decision to include a particular text. Really smart people can make really chuckleheaded decisions.
In the extensive canon of American literature, I would bet good money that Antioch English teachers could find books that address substantive issues without resorting to adolescent potty humor, sexual vulgarity, and the use of language that civilized people do not use in private or public.
Parents who object to the inclusion of texts on recommended or required reading lists due to obscene language, sexuality, or highly controversial messages are not engaging in some kind of inappropriate censorship. All educators evaluate curricular materials for objectionable content, including language, sexuality, and controversial themes. The irony is that when teachers decide not to select a text due to these elements, the choice constitutes an exercise in legitimate decision-making, but when conservative parents engage in it, they are tarred with the label of "censor."
Furthermore, virtually no parents advocate prior restraint and only rarely are they asking for the removal of a text from a school library. Rather, parents are suggesting that it is reasonable to include the nature and extent of profanity, obscenity, and sexuality when selecting texts to be recommended and/or taught to minors in public schools.
Are those teachers, administrators, and school board members who disagree with the suggestion that the nature and extent of at suggestion saying that they will never take into account the nature and extent of profanity, obscenity, and sexuality? If they are claiming that they will never take into account these elements, then parents should reconsider both their veracity and their fitness for teaching.
In all four years of high school English, students read approximately 28-32 books. From the dozens and dozens of texts available, it seems unlikely that any student's education would be compromised by teachers, in the service of respect for parental values, comity, and modesty, avoiding the most controversial texts.