Those who have read this site for a while will not be surprised to find that I am not one to scream censorship the minute a parent complains about a book or a school changes the reading list. I believe parents and schools have the right – actually the duty – to decide what is best for the children in their charge. Sometimes that includes choices about what books should be read or even available to students. And sometimes the folks involved make decisions I might not agree with, but that doesn’t make it censorship.
I bring this up because the issue has come up again here in Ohio. Here is the story from the Columbus Dispatch (sub. may be required):
Olentangy Liberty High Schoolâ€™s summer reading list was a little too hot for at least one parent and the district superintendent.
Olentangy Superintendent Scott Davis rejected two of four books recommended to students entering Libertyâ€™s 10 th-grade college-prep English class. Reading any of them is voluntary.
Davis deemed the books, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, inappropriate after a complaint from a parent.
[. . .]
Davis defended his decision on two fronts: objectionable content and lack of communication to parents about how and why books were selected.
“Lovely Bones has a very graphic rape scene and, given the millions of books that are out there, there has to be a very strong rationale (for selecting it),” he said. “Curious Incident (was removed) largely for potentially offensive language. And Iâ€™m not sure we had a process in place that communicated the nature of the material to parents.”
I have not read Lovely Bones – and frankly don’t plan to – but I have read Curious Incident and enjoyed it. But just because I thought it was a great book doesn’t mean I think the parent was wrong to complain. While it is certainly true that most kids are exposed to violence and vulgarity at an early age these days, that doesn’t make it a good thing. I can certainly sympathize with a parents wish to keep the exposure to a minimum. As the father of a 17-month old daughter I am acutely aware of this issue.
Despite, not having read it I would lean toward concern about Lovely Bones more than the Curious Incident. Violent and/or graphic rape scenes are on a different level, to my mind, than mere profanity. But after some thought it seems to me that tenth graders should be able to handle these books or at least have the option of reading and discussing them. Given that the program is voluntary, and the intent is college prep, I think the superintendent acted to hastily.
Granted, there are some students who might not be ready for this type of material, but certainly I think I was able to handle these type of works when I was that age. I don’t think it should result in lawsuits or anything, I just think maybe he pulled the trigger a little to fast. The good news is that this incident seems to have triggered a policy review:
Davis said he envisions creating a different method next year for developing summer reading lists â€” one that includes teachers, administrators, board members and parents.
“I think there is a wisdom of crowds,” said Davis, who assumed the Olentangy superintendentâ€™s job in May. “Thatâ€™s the beauty of public schools. We try to get as much input as possible.”
While reading and thinking about the story I was wondering what I might do as a parent if my child was in the class. I think what I would do is discuss the issue with both the teacher and my child. Knowing what the teacher was looking to accomplish would help me understand why the book was being assigned and to get a sense of the teachers perspective. This would also be a great opportunity to read books with your kids and to discuss the important issues involved. You can impart moral guidance and critical thinking by exploring the perspectives and potential trouble spots these books might involve.
I wish my parents would have done more of this. I grew up in a rather strict household where many things were simply off limits. Instead of always leaning toward prohibition I think you can set limits but also discuss how to deal with the ugliness that is out there in the world and how to make sense of it; and more importantly how not to get caught up in it or changed by it. You shouldn’t seek out exposure to dark and ugly things just for the fun of it, but neither can you hope to avoid dealing with the world as it is in some important way.
Such are my thoughts. What does the peanut gallery think? Is it always wrong to remove books from a reading list? Who should decided what books are read or stocked in the library? What role should parents play in this scenario?
If you don’t feel like commenting on this weighty topic, have a good weekend!