To Kill A Conversation
Because one of our local school districts just made the national news over it, let’s talk about book-banning. Well, actually, what the Mukilteo School District did was the opposite of banning, but you wouldn’t know that if you listened to only right-wing media or, sadly, even occasionally credible ones.
Full disclosure: I’ve been sleeping with an MSD school board member.
After being on the required ninth-grade reading list without objection for years, a request was made to end the teaching of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Published in 1960, winner of a Pulitzer Prize, chosen in several polls as the best American novel, TKAM is considered by many to have been a factor in the Civil Rights awakening of that decade.
But, if not yet enough, much has changed since then. It’s doubtful there are many school districts that have never updated their required reading. Unlike assumptions and false claims of some people, here and across the land, the book was neither banned nor “pulled;” nor was the decision about white students’ discomfort or imaginary “critical race theory.” The complaint was that, because of language and characterizations, some students of color found it offensive. Not “uncomfortable.” There’s a difference.
This newspaper carried letters and opinions on both sides of the issue. Those that weren’t based on misinformation presented credible arguments. Example: It’s a seminal (a word that could become banned in Florida) book and should be taught, in historical context. Making students uncomfortable is the point. Or: There are more recent books that address racism from the point of view of its victims, rather than of “white saviors,” and in more current context.
Following district policy, a committee was convened to address the complaint. Consisting of teachers, administrators, and community members, it gathered input from all sides. Some insisted on keeping it as is; others demanded it not only be removed from required reading but also banned from libraries. The committee’s decision “split the baby,” and the board, respecting the process, accepted it.
There’s another question, which receives little attention: what’s the pedagogic goal of required books in English classes, as opposed to social studies or history? It’s understandable that not all English teachers feel equipped to tread the hot coals of racism. The decision by MSD allows those who do, to continue doing so, and those who don’t, to teach other books.
No decision would have made everyone happy; this one surely didn’t. But last Saturday’s opinion piece by our local NAACP’s Mr. Glazer, stating “The decision to remove it as “required” reading at the same time to list it as an “approved” book is absolutely contradictory” makes no sense at all. I approve of lava cake for dessert, but I don’t require it. For example.
So, what’s the difference, some might ask, between un-requiring TKAM here and what’s happening in states like Florida, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and others? Isn’t it just a matter of which race is being protected? If one, why not the other? Well, The MSD decision was made in consideration of minority students’ and some teachers’ finding a particular book offensive, not an attack on teaching about racism. Controversial, but rational. The latter are attempts to erase America’s history of racism altogether. Because it doesn’t fit their whitewashed narrative. Likewise, banning “Maus” wasn’t about words or images. It was about wiping memory of the Holocaust.
It’s being taken even further. No sexuality. No gender issues. No discussions that could make a student “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.” (Define that, if you can.) And worse: Virginia’s new governor established a “tip line” for parents to report “inherently divisive practices in their schools.” (Define that, too.) There are proposals to put cameras in classrooms, so parents can spy on what teachers are teaching and report whatever they dislike.
At the center of it all is this: Who decides what’s taught in our schools? Who gets to object? What number of objections becomes dispositive? Is there national interest in our children having a common body of knowledge? If it should be left to states, would it matter if half our students know realistic American history and half know only what red state politicians want them to? If it’s one thing to make TKAM optional, it’s quite another to muzzle teachers legislatively, or to allow any parent to veto lessons they don’t like. We’re already stacking up poorly, internationally. How bad would it be if all our students are “protected” from thinking critically? And OMG: evolution!
We could also discuss that when President Biden talked about protecting school board members from death threats, right-wing screamers called it attempting to “silence parents.” But let’s not. It’s too disturbing.