In book debate, ask the teachers

We’re in day three of the Great To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn Controversy of 2018 from Duluth, where the school system has removed (not banned) the two books from the list of required reading.

News travels slowly from Duluth so it’s taken awhile to get people wound up who’ve never read either book but have an opinion anyway.

An anti-censorship group, the National Coalition Against Censorship, is the latest to weigh in saying:

No parent or group of parents is qualified to make the choice of what other children should read. Those choices are made by teachers who can assess the intellectual maturity of their students and direct discussions on sensitive subjects toward educationally enriching ends.

It is regrettable that teachers were not consulted before the decision to remove these classic works was made.

That’s the part of the story that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as perhaps it should.

English teachers were never consulted before a decision was made to remove the two books from the English curriculum. They might even favor finding a different perspective — authors of color, anyone? — to teach the same material. But what does it say about how much you value your teachers with expertise if you don’t even ask them for it?

In his excellent column today, the Pioneer Press’ Ruben Rosario asks a good question: “Who in the end determines what is a classic, what qualifies for required reading, and what is appropriate for our children to read in the school setting?”

Should it be the teacher, the teacher in consultation with parents, the principal, the school district, the students themselves?

I think of Gary Lewis, one of my best friends in grade school. He read those books, I expect, as I did. He may have liked them. I don’t know. We never talked about them.

Lewis, grade-wise, was the smartest kid in my class. He was also the fastest swimmer in my grade. I was an envious second. Lewis was black, which meant absolutely nothing to me. But, later, it would be pointed out to me that he shattered two ugly stereotypes I then knew nothing about. Really?

We lost contact after I was shipped off to Catholic school after fifth grade. I’m sure he read both books. But in hindsight, I wonder how he or his parents and siblings reacted to the numerous racial epithets in those books.

The school superintendent’s rationale for leaving teachers out of a discussion that reportedly ran for months strains credibility.

“The decision to protect the dignity of our students seemed like a reasonable and easy one to make that didn’t require teacher input,” Michael Cary, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction, told the Duluth News Tribune. “But in terms of making sure that we select excellent novels that serve the same purpose, that definitely needs teacher feedback and their help in making that decision.”

If the decision alone was an easy one, why did the discussion take months, not minutes?

That we’re coming at this all wrong is proven by the fact that almost nobody with an opinion knows what books are on the required reading list now, nor whether they’re there because they’ve always been there or they stand the test of time and the changing nature of our population.

The English teachers do.

  • Guest

    Folks are upset because the books were removed solely because of the use of slurs. Content and the fact these were two most influential FOR blacks did not matter.

    This shields whites from understanding the fight of Black Lives Matter. When race doesn’t matter to an individual it is especially hard to understand just how deeply it mattered to others.

    Can WWII be understood if the Holocaust being a direct result of the deeply held Aryan Superiority attitude is never mentioned???

    I personally feel this is a mistake, much like ignoring Miss Saigon (?) because it cast a people in a poor light. KNOWING the attitudes towards black makes Code Talkers and Tuskegee Airmen all the more important……not something to be swept under the rug.

    • // Can WWII be understood if the Holocaust being a direct result of the deeply held Aryan Superiority attitude is never mentioned???

      You want Mein Kampf on the required reading list?

      // This shields whites from understanding the fight of Black Lives Matter. When race doesn’t matter to an individual it is especially hard to understand just how deeply it mattered to others.

      Is “The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ “? (Alex Haley) on the list? Should it be?

      //I personally feel this is a mistake, much like ignoring Miss Saigon (?) because it cast a people in a poor light

      And the fact is used white actors to play the part of people of color.

      Playwright Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubil are both white guys. What is the perspective that they bring to what is, basically Madame Butterfly: the white lieutenant’s or the Vietnamese woman’s?

      • Guest

        What should be on the list is open, I’d even have no problem if these two books were shifted aside to read Malcolm X because time is limited and choices are made. But once we start down the slope of “offensive” and so removed from a list…….

        By the way, I would WANT my history teacher to have read Mein Kampf. Teaching the consequences of that attitude would not take making that a required book. But no, I would have no problem making it required as long as it was not praised as a valid view.

        The race of actors, authors pales in comparison to the actual content.

        • I can think of better ways to teach students about the consequence of “that attitude”. But, besides, that’s history, not English.

          • Guest

            Can we agree that choosing better books to put on this years required reading list is waaay different than permanently removing books solely because some may be offended?

            Content matters.

          • // Can we agree that choosing better books to put on this years required reading list is waaay different than permanently removing books solely because some may be offended?

            No, I don’t think so. Why a book makes the list and why a book doesn’t make a list can’t be separate.

          • Guest

            Well that is a fair point. Have a good Friday. Of all media, I enjoy your comment section best.

          • Lindsey

            But should any book be taught without historical context? That type of reading does not provide critical thinking opportunities for the kids.

    • jon

      WWII can be completely understood ignoring the holocaust nearly entirely.

      Germany invaded poland, France and Britain declare war on germany… germany ends up invading and occupying the netherlands, belgium, and france.

      Germany bombs london in the blitz, war on two fronts with russia later on…
      Italy pulled a similar stunt seizing territory in the mediterranean.

      Meanwhile in the pacific Japan invades neighboring states hoping to gain access to oil reserves, and mineral deposits eventually they see the US fleet as a threat and try to eliminate it… which triggers the US entry into the war.

      It was a fight over land and resources… history and propaganda has made the allies the good guys bringing up a moral victory over the evil nazis, but the truth is the US didn’t enter the war to fight against a genocide, they entered the war to fight against attacks on our military, and due to various alliances it put us into the fighting in europe also…

      While we were aware of and maybe outraged by the wholesale slaughter of a people, it wasn’t enough to accept refugees fleeing the holocaust…

      We weren’t angry about the camps (if we were we should have been angry about the internment camps in the US) we were angry about the attack. Sure there were at the time a variety of opinions like there are now… but the driving factor for war wasn’t the holocaust… not for any country involved.

      That the whole world turned a blind eye to things captured in books like “night” by elie wiesel, that isn’t to my knowledge being taught right now…

      Why they did it, why we stood silent… certainly we can argue about how to teach those things, but ultimately neither of those things is needed to understand WWII it’s what makes the holocaust denier movement as strong as it is… because most of it can be whitewashed out of the history books without really changing the broader implications for WWII…. (except the creation of israel, though even that can be explained away by the anti-semitism that existed in europe, and even in the US, at the time)

      • Jeff

        The “Greatest Generation” kinda missed the boat on a lot of things.

        • Rob

          Starting with the U.S.’ policy of refusing entry to the Jewish refugees at the start of the war.

      • Guest

        WWII can be completely understood ignoring the holocaust nearly entirely = = = You and I merely disagree on the word “completely”.

      • Rob

        Six million Jews and countless other folks who were considered inferior or deviant were wiped out by the Hitler regime, yet your contention is that WWII can be understood without mentioning the pogroms, ghettoization and then imprisonment and mass executions of all these people? Please tell me you’re just messin’.

        • jon

          //Six million Jews and countless other folks who were considered inferior or deviant were wiped out by the Hitler regime

          So which of those things do you think lead to countries fighting each other? What part of that is required to understand that Germany invaded Poland and because of various pacts nation after nation went to war?

          Tell me what the connection was other than that they happened at the same time, with the same government…

          Hitler wasn’t unique on trying to commit genocide many rulers before and after him have done it, he wasn’t unique in invading a sovereign country… He isn’t even unique in doing both at the same time… But we don’t claim you need to know about genocide of the Kurds to understand operation dessert storm… So what makes you think WWII was different, other than the propaganda we’ve been fed our whole lives?

    • Kassie

      I’m pretty sure the only book I read about WWII in high school was The Diary of Anne Frank. I didn’t need to read a book written by a Christian to learn about what happened to the Jews. Just like I don’t need to read a book by a white man or woman to find out what life was like for blacks in America.

  • jon

    um… I still remember my freshman year of high school english teacher… and I’m pretty sure we were reading huck finn because it was the most popular book of her time, and it’s what she brought into the classroom (as a renegade new teacher, bringing in popular american literature) when she first started teaching in the late 1800’s… and she will continue teaching that book until she dies (which won’t happen for millions of years due to the deal she made with the devil to torture children in his name in exchange for eternal life.)

    Now there are good teachers and there are people like my freshman year english teacher… and maybe the good teachers can find relevant good material for the students… But I wouldn’t leave the selection process up to the devil woman I had teaching me that year.

    I’d go one step further and say that suggesting that only english teachers can say what would be suitable reading material is also a bit misguided, but I will support the idea that the teachers will be best equipped to teach material they personally understand and are capable of teaching…

    With all that being said, I still think the people being taught should be the ones with more say in what they are learning… ultimately they decide what they will or won’t learn anyhow, so giving them a bit more control to decide what will be taught to them will make the education more effective over all… But talking to students about their learning objectives is scary because they might want to learn something we can’t teach them… and then we’d look like idiots (though to be fair I had educators look like idiots without talking to me about learning objectives)

    • For the life of me, I can’t remember being assigned either one. A ton of Hemingway, though.

      Another issue here is the need for diversity in the ranks of teachers becomes much more critical when decisions are made like this.

      • MikeB

        Yes, a more diversified teaching staff is the key but only if administrators will listen to them. Shutting out teachers is the problem here

    • Rob

      Yup. Education is the only arena in which the consumer’s opinion is not solicited, and in which the consumer has no power.

  • BReynolds33

    It’s not that they removed the books that is irritating me. Do what you will, teach how you will. It is the arrogance of administration to, once again, ignore parent and teacher input.

    Why? Because someone might be upset by the books. Might be. Not they were upset, but that they might be. At least with To Kill a Mockingbird, the book was meant to upset people. So if it wasn’t upsetting anyone, maybe it needed to go for that reason.

    • That’s really Rosario’s point, though. Nobody ever asks if it’s offensive to the students. The burden is on the student in an environment where quesitoning authority is discouraged (a whole ‘nother problem).

      but one of the things that’s important to note is almost without exception, the dismissal of concerns about things being offensive comes from white people. The extent to which white people insist that everything be a white perspective in education cannot be ignored.

      • Mike

        Various people of many demographics can find things offensive for any number of reasons. When it comes to Huck Finn, the dynamic is race. But that’s only one example. One only needs to look at the lists of books where bans are attempted in schools to know that it’s a wide variety of work that’s found objectionable by someone.

        If a high school English teacher assigned Nabokov’s “Lolita” to a group of AP English seniors, I would salute him/her because that’s a challenging assignment – but one that a bunch of bright and dedicated high school seniors are capable of tackling. Obviously, that’s a book that parents might object to. Does the race of a parent who doesn’t want their kid reading “Lolita” make any difference?

        Dostoevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov” contains one of the most scalding criticisms of organized religion ever put to paper. It can be highly offensive to Catholics in particular, since that’s the organization Dostoevsky was aiming at. Should Catholics be protected from the sting of the author’s ruminations about the corruption of the church? Is it OK for some groups to be offended, but not others?

        • One of the questions I have is what exactly is it that a particular book is intended to provide in an English curriculum. Is it an exercise of art and structutre and storytelling. Or is it an exercise in a particular message?

          I recall in high school one of my required book was Flaubert’s Madame Bouvary. I’m still not exactly sure why. I liked the book.

          I recall the paper I turned in came back with a red pen that said “I think you put this one on too high of a pedestal.”

          OK, fine. Why? Because my opinion didn’t match yours? Because you think the book sucked , in which case why did you assign it?

          Was my writing poor ? Apprently not if that’s the only reason you could give for not liking my paper.

          No, we had a difference of opinion on the literary quality of the book. The theme of escaping the humdrum of life? Irrelevant apparently.

          Earlier in my education, everyone had to read The Red Badge of Courage. God, I hated the Red Badge of Courage. I found more value in Neil Sheehy’s The Bright Shining Lie.

          so maybe the question about what’s on and what’s not on a required reading list should start with “what’s the point?”

          • Mike

            This is where I trust teachers to articulate that. It all depends on the curriculum.

            Example: I took a combined course in high school covering American history and literature (taught jointly by an English and a history teacher). Some of the English assignments had a historical component (“Red Badge of Courage”), while some of the history assignments were literary (“The Jungle”). The way the classes and assignments complemented each other gave us all a solid grounding in the connections between literature, culture, and history.

            “Huck Finn” would be quite valuable in such a context, though of course it’s not the only work that could be assigned.

          • X.A. Smith

            I agree. My Public High School Teacher Lottery™ netted me bad history teachers, but luckily a very good English teacher, who taught the history around the reading assignments, and to a large degree he created his curriculum around understanding key moments in history. I suspect he did this because he knew who was teaching us history. But he also taught the form, the writer’s style and execution and such. I learned most of my history in English class, though.

          • Mike

            Those teachers are worth their weight in gold. The history half of the class I described above was taught by a woman who was very nearly a socialist. In addition to assigning socialist novels (“The Jungle,” by Upton Sinclair), she was telling us about the Reagan administration’s death squads in Nicaragua (this was the 1980s). In a small town high school, no less. She was a treasure.

          • The other aspect of this is the concentration of literature on the printed word to the exclusion — usually — of the poetry and literature of music. I can only imagine the debate if the artistry or storytelling and structure had a ‘required listening’ list.

          • RBHolb

            Interesting point. My English teacher in 10th grade used the lyrics of classic rock songs as an introduction to poetry.

            Time constraints being what they were, we never moved on to other poetry, but I still think the approach was a good one.

          • jon

            In highschool I learned how to write in a history class, and I learned math in a science class, I learned to repeat what the teacher said in english classes, I learned english in my german classes, and I mostly slept in the math classes.

            This notion of classes by subject seems like a bit of a misnomer at best, and a complete distraction from actually learning at worst…

          • Well you learned some writing in history, you learned some math in science and you learned some english in German.

            But I know what you’re saying. The ’70s for me was the experimental time in education in which all of our classes were sort of smushed together under this thinking that because there’s a little bit of each in every other class, the primary discipline can be minimized.

            What a crock of ’70s crap that was.

  • ec99

    If Huck goes, can Holden be far behind?

    • Jerry

      We can only hope

  • Erick

    Ironically, it is the controversial, dangerous books and media that ought to be required and critiqued in the classroom. Anyone can consume innocuous material on their own.

    • It’s interesting to me that when I first posted this the other day, I asked people what books SHOULD be on the list. There were only two or three responses.

      I tend to wonder how well read a lot of the people with an opinion on this actually are.

      • Erick

        I don’t mind the canon changing, after all nobody read “Huckleberry Finn” before 1884. I just worry that the substitute will not be something like “The Underground Railroad” by Whitehead.

        • Lindsey

          And I worry that the substitute will be “The Underground Railroad” by Whitehead. A white man writing from an African American POV is far more troubling than a white woman writing from a white child’s POV.

          • Chris Hatch

            I’m confused by this comment. Colson Whitehead is African American. Who is the white man writing from an African American POV?

          • Lindsey

            Ah, sorry, got it confused with Underground Airlines, written by a white guy.

        • Jeff

          I agree with BC comments that the book has to be there for a purpose. Whitehead’s book also contains the n-word if that is the objection to Huck Finn. Or is it that it was written by a white author and we’re trying to teach the African-American experience from AA point of view?

          We read Black Boy by Richard Wright. I don’t remember a lot of what I read, but I do remember that book. I can’t recall if it used the n-word, it probably did and maybe that’s the issue. You’ll never find a book by a African-American author that doesn’t because that’s part of the experience.

          • I think back in school, we had to read Black Like Me. The ultimate white privilege in which a white guy had to be a black guy so that the rest of us could learn what it was like to be black in America. Because, god forbid, we read about it from an actual black person.

          • Jeff

            We were much more enlightened in Copley, Ohio. Home of the Copley Indians (still is).

          • Jerry

            That book was still being read in my school’s freshman English class back in ’91, at least at the standard level. The more advanced readers read Native Son.

          • Jerry

            However the teacher of that class was old enough to have taught you too.

          • Rob

            That book, for me, is one of the most quintessential examples of wrongheadedness that’s ever been published. And it’s not much of a leap from this kind of dominant culture whitewashing to the Ram Truck commercial that quotes/appropriates MLK, but conveniently omits the core of his address, which was a critique of capitalism in general, with a swipe at the auto industry included.

      • As has been mentioned, we don’t know what is on the reading list and how it has changed over time. I’d suggest “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown and even though it is history instead of fiction, it is a riveting read that is truly consequential. The question then becomes one of which teacher assigns it: the history/social studies teacher? The English teacher? Disciplines are often siloed and opportunities for students to learn about history, math, and science through something other than a textbook may be missed, and that’s a pity.

        Historical fiction can bridge the gap: “The Origin” by Irving Stone tells the life of Charles Darwin, and is a long read but an enlightening explanation of how he learned what would underpin the theory of evolution, all laid out in digestible prose. “The Agony and the Ecstasy”, also by Stone, gives life to the subject of art while also building a sense of what the Church meant to daily life in the Renaissance. Understanding that the technology we enjoy today came from those who labored before can be taught effectively through books like “Fate is the Hunter”, by Earnest K. Gann. If you want to teach WW2, “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand will tell a story that will will stick with your students for a lifetime.

        In short, literature can teach more effectively across disciplines than textbooks, but we need to be more open to making that happen.

  • Lindsey

    More than ever, I think this debate highlights the benefit of trigger warnings. The books should not be assigned without discussion of the content; before, during, and after they have been read.

  • John F.

    These were my sentiments almost exactly. On the day this happened, my spouse and I were discussing this story and we both thought that it was odd that they didn’t include the people actually teaching the material in the discussion.

    As I pointed out in my comment on the previous post about this story, finding suitable replacements will be difficult, as the lack of responses to Bob’s question about replacements may indicate. I suspect that many of the books proposed will receive significant pushback from other community members, given the nature of the material. I fear that by not including the English teachers in the decision, the district has now set a precedent that will be difficult to reverse.

    Trust the teachers.

  • Rosario is the last columnist worth reading at the PP. I’m glad his health is good and he continues writing, but it must be kind of lonely there as the paper is a ghost of its former self. His comment on including teachers in the discussion is significant in a way that goes beyond this reading list issue. Teachers are supposed to be professionals, but they are so proscribed by petty administrative policies and overmanagement that it’s a wonder more of them don’t move on to a field where their professionalism is valued. While I’m okay with the reading list modification, it really is a slap in the face for the teacher in the classroom, who is thus deemed irrelevant to the discussion.

  • emersonpie

    Missing to some degree in this discussion is why we teach literature in school. Is it 1) to expose young people to as many “great works” as possible, because many (most?) of them will never pick up a novel after graduation and/or 2) to teach students how to encounter a novel by decoding symbolism, discovering perspective, etc.

    If it’s primarily the latter, lots of works can fill the bill. But if we’re worried about the first reason, that this is the first and only chance to teach a “moral lesson” from a novel much beloved for generations, the debate really heats up. Whose lesson do we teach?

  • Amanda H.

    Couldn’t a teacher still assign these books if they thought they were valuable? This change isn’t censorship, the books can still be taught. I honestly don’t understand what the hub-bub is about. Perhaps they should do away with the required reading list entirely and leave it up to teachers to develop their own curriculum.

    • Lindsey

      Often, teachers cannot teach their own curriculum.

  • And… Here we go…