During peacetime, it’s easy to convince ourselves that things like censorship and mass plagues are restricted to the history books and far-off, dystopian futures. However, as we all have observed in recent months, these things have become an all-too-present reality.
Last week, as you probably know, the Mat-Su Borough School Board voted 5-2 to remove five books of classic literature from the school district’s upper-level, elective English classes: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien; I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou; Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. As I understand it, more books will be on the chopping block at the next meeting, though we don’t know which books yet.
First, I want to commend Dr. Sarah Welton for standing up for a diverse curriculum, and eloquently arguing her position that controversial books can be beneficial to students who have not otherwise been exposed to challenging topics and ideas (which she understands, having taught intro-level English at Mat-Su College for 14 years). I also want to thank member Kelsey Trimmer for supporting her by voting “no” on the book ban.
While many people have argued over the word “ban,” I want to take a moment to explain why this term is not inappropriate, though it is misleading without additional information. The American Library Association differentiates the terms “ban” and “challenge” thus: “A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials.” Since the recent vote was not an “attempt,” but an actual motion voted into effect, it stands to reason that it would be considered a “ban.” The latter definition does not clarify that banning is a physical removal from a library, and some sources — such as Middle Tennessee State University — interpret this to include removal from “school reading lists.”
If you’re not sold on that argument, I’ll reiterate what I have written on various social media platforms: By taking these books out of the English 3 & 4 curriculum — which, surprisingly, but importantly, are indeed electives — the school board is preventing teachers from being able to choose to use or not use the book, or parts of the book, in their lessons. While teachers do have the option to ask their principals for permission to use a book not on the official list, you can bet that if you pitch a book that has been removed by the Board from the curriculum, they’re going to say no. And who can blame them? It’s not their fault they receive so much supervisory and public pressure. That’s the nature of their position, unfortunately.
Some parents and community members I’ve interacted with online this past week have argued that this “ban” is not such a big deal because students can seek out these books on their own, but let’s try and be realistic. Despite the recent uptick in sales of these books at local bookstores (even in a pandemic, which has closed these storefronts), it is naïve to assume students will seek out classics in the school or public libraries, especially if they are not confident readers or college bound. Even if they do read it on their own, there’s a good chance they will fail to grasp the full meaning and importance of these texts without guided instruction, which is designed to foster critical thinking. If we can’t trust teachers — the ones who have actually studied the content and its overall significance — to make informed decisions, why send our kids to public school?
Books like Gatsby are, as MSBSD student Mekenna Bills mentioned in her letter to the editor, key texts used in standardized testing, which students are expected to know in order to perform well in the language arts portions of these tests. Beyond that, texts like Caged Bird and Invisible Man speak to violence and discrimination that, as more than one board member pointed out, may resonate with students, and that’s not inherently a bad thing. While no responsible parent or educator would hope a student has experienced such pain, we know these stories might actually give these students the courage to speak up about it. For the first time in their young lives, they might feel empowered to write about their hurt and so connect with other individuals — all over the world, if they so choose — who can empathize and offer support.
Yes, teachers will need to provide trigger warnings for some of these works to prepare students for the material. Yes, teachers may want to poll parents at the start of the school year to gauge their receptiveness to a book before teaching it. If a significant portion of students’ families object, teachers may have to choose different texts or develop alternate lesson plans (which is not a new concept, by the way). Teachers may have to turn some class discussions into silent, individual writing prompts. But the point is, as Amy Spargo said in the meeting, these books have been determined to have “literary merit” and should be available for teachers to teach.
I can’t pretend to understand how a school board member like Jeff Taylor — whose primary background is in business, by the way, not education — could reach adulthood without comprehending the reasons “we include books that even we label as controversial in our curriculum” (though Welton provided some insight on that front). But I can see why this vote happened, and it tells me that we as a community need to be paying way more attention to what happens in our local government. I learned this life lesson working the local meetings beat for the Frontiersman a few years ago, but unfortunately had forgotten it in the years since. Now, though, with so many meetings streamed online by Radio Free Palmer, there are fewer excuses for not tuning in to the happenings of the Mat-Su Valley.
Unfortunately, no matter how much we weigh in, the school board as a whole has demonstrated that they don’t trust stakeholders and educators to make the right decisions. The list of books that went before the school board, as confirmed by MSBSD Public Information Officer Jillian Morrissey in a recent Frontiersman article (and other teachers who contacted me directly), was the result of a year’s worth of work conducted by the curriculum council to determine what materials most effectively educate our students. In half an hour, five school board members — several of whom claimed literacy and higher test scores as core facets of their campaigns (Jim Hart and Ryan Ponder, for example, who voted to remove the books) — decided they knew better, and with their votes sent the message that they are more interested in exercising their power than listening to their constituents.
There is so much more I could say, but I hope I have sufficiently made my point: Trust teachers, don’t ban books, stay informed, and make your voices heard, before it’s too late.
Copyright © April 2020, Cait Buxbaum