Sex, Violence, and Radical Islam: Why 'Persepolis' Belongs in Public Schools

Administrators in Chicago may think they're protecting students by limiting access to a controversial graphic novel. But they're missing a chance to impart real knowledge.

Marjane Satrapi

The job of American schools, as enforced by the bureaucracy, is not really education. It's censorship.

That may sound overly cynical. But I've worked as an educational writer and curriculum developer for almost 20 years, and the most important part of the job, it often seems like, is not imparting information, but rather figuring out how to make sure that the students don't receive any.

On one project, a colleague of mine working on a world history course was told not to include the fact that gay people were targeted during the Holocaust. In another instance, I was told that I could not, for sensitivity reasons, include a test passage about storms at sea. Passages about rats, or alcohol, or love, or death were similarly proscribed. So were passages that depicted, or even mentioned, slavery -- and this was for an American history exam. Again, there were sensitivity concerns, though whether we were worried about offending black people or white people, I don't know. Probably both.

I was not surprised, therefore, to learn that the Chicago Public Schools have recently decided to restrict access to Marjane Satrapi's graphic memoir, Persepolis, which deals with her experiences growing up under the fundamentalist regime in Iran. The exact nature of and reason for the ban is still somewhat unclear. There was initial speculation that the book was being banned from all school libraries because its negative portrayal of the thuggish fundamentalist Iranian regime was somehow Islamophobic or insensitive to Mulsim students. This story made CPS look, obviously, very bad.

School officials have hurried to explain that they do not actually object to the political content. Instead, they say, the book is still sanctioned for school libraries, but that lower grades may not use it because of "graphic language and images that are not appropriate for general use in the seventh grade curriculum." High school teachers are still, apparently, allowed to use the book, though only with special training.

CPS then, isn't protecting the Iranian regime out of some confused notion that criticizing them constitutes Islamophobia. It is simply protecting all of our children. And, to be fair, Persepolis does include a certain amount of violence and (especially in its second volume) a certain amount of sex. Satrapi talks about how friends and relatives were tortured, both by the Shah and by the Revolutionary government. There's a picture of a man dismembered by the authorities. She also talks about the Iran-Iraq war, and there are pictures of wounded soldiers. She describes her escape from Iran to Austria, and talks (without much detail, but still) about her sexual adventures as a young woman living on her own. She describes her suicide attempt. She writes the word "fuck" once. She talks about her gay roommates. She shows herself as a young child having imagined conversations with God. She shows herself as an adolescent smoking cigarettes and dealing pot. In my experience, any one of these infractions would be sufficient excuse to keep Persepolis out of the hands of students.

I'm sure there are some parents who, if asked, would say that they don't want to have their seventh graders exposed to narratives about suicide, or torture, or God, or sex, and don't want them to read the word "fuck." There are probably parents who would be horrified to learn that my third-grader is reading Louise Erdrich's The Birchbark House at his Waldorf school -- a book in which (my son informs me) virtually everyone dies in a hideous smallpox epidemic. Maybe someone would be offended, too, by the book he read about the Chicago fire (too violent!) or by the Norse myths he's studying (too pagan!).

The truth is, outside of arithmetic, it's hard to teach anything worth learning that someone won't find offensive or upsetting or frightening or off-putting. If it's interesting, if it's something people care about, then people are going to have opinions about it. That means somebody, somewhere, isn't going to like it. The drive to keep our children perfectly safe from dangerous knowledge just ends up reducing their education to a bland, boring, irrelevant slog.

And, again, you start to suspect that this is the point. As in the Iranian regime that Satrapi describes, where art students are only allowed to do figure drawing sketches of women covered in a head-to-toe chador, the aim of American education too often seems to be a quite deliberate ignorance. The revolutionary guards patrol the classrooms not to make sure you learn something about the real world, but to make sure you don't.

So we're faced with a choice. Do we want to micromanage our schools for ideological purity? Or do we want kids to learn something -- even, sometimes, something with which we might disagree? If we want the first, we should keep on as we're keeping on. If we want the second, we need to stop being so worried that teachers might teach the wrong thing that we don't let them teach anything at all.

Obviously, nobody wants first graders watching slasher films. But, just as obviously, Persepolis isn't a slasher film. It's aimed in part at kids -- not despite the fact that it includes charged material, but because it does. Satrapi shows herself, as a child and then as a young woman, dealing with violence, with sexuality -- with moving away from her parents, and failing, and trying again. Hopefully, most of the students who read it won't be faced with the level of trauma and danger that she faced -- though some of them in Chicago may well. But even if their exact experiences don't map onto hers, surely a lot of kids in middle school or high school will see themselves in the narrative here.

The worry, then, seems to be not so much that the material will be too much for them (like horror films in first grade), but that it might fit too well -- that the students might feel like the story has something to do with their lives. Perhaps they might even see, in the senseless, narrow-minded institutions of Iran, an analogy to narrow-minded institutions closer to home.