When I was 10, my eye caught a curious title on my school library shelves. It was A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle. To make a long story short, I read it and fell in love with words and ideas.
Later, I learned that this splendid piece of literature has often been banned because its ideas about witchcraft may be too powerful for an impressionable child's mind. I also became vaguely aware that other highly-acclaimed books were occasionally banned in small-minded corners of the earth.
But for decades, book-banning seemed a pretty remote concept to me -- something that happened in far-away, unlit places.
No more. As I write this, book lovers are gathering in a park about 100 yards from this very same middle school (in Wyoming, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati) to protest a chilling response by the local school board to a parent's complaint about two highly-acclaimed books on the high school reading list. (The books are: The Bookseller of Kabul, by Asne Seierstad, and The Perks Being of a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky.)
Did the board respectfully remind the parent that he could have his child work with a teacher to read something else instead? Did the board immediately show complete confidence in its teachers and librarians?
No. The board declared that the school selection process had not been properly followed (refusing to provide details), and that all that approved books will be reviewed by a special committee according to four criteria:
• The relationship to the course of study;
• The uniqueness of the content that is not adequately provided in district materials;
• The appropriateness of the content for the maturity and comprehension levels of the students; and,
• The extent to which the content could create controversy among student, parents, and community groups.
Controversy, of course, being a negative. I checked this with the Wyoming Superindendent Dr. Gail Kist-Kline. She confirmed that if a book was found to be controversial, the principal would have to re-review it in light of its controversial nature. She also vigorously disagreed with the characterization from many that the Board is flirting with the notion of banned books. But to my eyes, and to many others, two very disturbing actions are taking place: first, the lack of support for teachers who have chosen obviously very distinguished books; second, and more importantly, the nature of a review which gives zero credence to quality and extraordinary credence to controversy.
It is, of course, entirely appropriate for a school board to investigate any parent's complaint. And I get the impression that Dr. Kist-Kline would personally be upset and even ashamed if a highly-acclaimed approved book were later un-approved. She understands that the national reputation of Wyoming's schools -- U.S. News & World Report ranked it the 50th best high school in the nation in 2009 -- would immediately and forever be tarnished. It would drop off that list faster than you can say "literature matters."
But what Dr. Kist-Kline and the Wyoming School Board don't seem to get is that a political review that gives great weight to controversy is, in itself, a profound retreat from the highest educational standards. My old Wyoming classmate Francesca (Schmid) Thomas, now president of the Parents-Teachers group for her local high school in Arizona, puts it this way:
The Board is not standing up for academic excellence, in my mind. If two parents object, how are we serving the vast majority of students if we eliminate the book from the selected readings? There are plenty of parents who have crazy ideas about what your children should hear, but that does not mean we should let them run our schools. Books need to be selected by professionally trained teachers based on their academic and intellectual merit.
A quality education requires the inclusion of controversial material, especially at the high school level, so that students can achieve their academic objectives while simultaneously becoming critical thinkers. Since state academic standards focus on broad objectives, not specific books, it is incumbent on teachers and administrators to open the eyes and minds of our students to the enormously complicated world in which we live in the context of the classroom. If public schools succumb to the pressures of vocal minorities to limit the educational experience of students, by diminishing access to materials deemed controversial by some, then we will relegate the vast majority of students in our country to a sub-standard level of education.
To have a Board of elected citizens give such weight to controversy is bad policy. It should be changed. Whenever we pit "educational merit" versus "controversy," we censor, plain and simple.
If this can happen in Wyoming, Ohio, it can happen anywhere. And consider some of the books that have been banned or challenged over the years. According to the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, 42 of the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century "have been the target of ban attempts." Here is that list, each book next to its corresponding number from the Radcliffe 100 list:
1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
2. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
5. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
6. Ulysses by James Joyce
7. Beloved by Toni Morrison
8. The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
9. 1984 by George Orwell
11. Lolita by Vladmir Nabokov
12. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
15. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
16. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
18. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
19. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
20. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
21. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
23. Their Eyes are Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
24. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
25. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
26. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
27. Native Son by Richard Wright
28. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
29. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
30. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
33. The Call of the Wild by Jack London
36. Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin
38. All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
45. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
48. Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence
49. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
53. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
55. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
64. Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence
66. Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
67. A Separate Peace by John Knowles
73. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
75. Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence
80. The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
84. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
88. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
97. Rabbit, Run by John Updike
Read great books. Celebrate great books. And demand that school boards everywhere celebrate them too.
Postscript: Here is the exact copy of A Wrinkle in Time that I read when I was ten. A few years ago, I made a swap with the Wyoming Middle School library: their old tattered copy for several brand new copies. It now sits on my desk, the most cherished book I own.
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David Shenk is a writer on genetics, talent and intelligence. He is the author of Data Smog, The Forgetting, and most recently, The Genius In All of Us.