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Oversimplification and Book Challenges

One of the most amusing library-related events of last week was a book banning in the town of Republic, Missouri after a resident “challenged the use of the books and lesson plans in Republic schools, arguing they teach principles contrary to the Bible.” Two books were removed from both the curriculum and the library.

It’s amusing on a couple of levels, especially because I don’t have to live in Republic. There’s the irony, of course, that someone in a town named Republic is arguing that the public school curriculum should be based on Christian principles rather than republican principles..

To be fair, the naming of Republic didn’t seem to have anything to do with republican principles. You can read a very boring history of the town on its website. You can also read the same boring history verbatim at Wikipedia. That’s got to be the worst Wikipedia page I’ve seen in a long time.

It’s even more amusing that the complainer is a university professor, since university professors don’t usually go around arguing about things based on the Bible, since “the Bible tells me so” isn’t exactly an argument stopper on university campuses.

Maybe a few literature classes would have taught him how to interpret literature, because from a diatribe he wrote in the local news about “filthy books” he doesn’t seem that familiar with the literary analysis.

Here’s his analysis of one of the books (and the one of the three he complained about that wasn’t dropped from the curriculum):

In high school English classes, children are required to read and view material that should be classified as soft pornography.

One such book is called “Speak.” They also watch the movie. This is a book about a very dysfunctional family. Schoolteachers are losers, adults are losers and the cheerleading squad scores more than the football team. They have sex on Saturday night and then are goddesses at church on Sunday morning. The cheer squad also gets their group-rate abortions at prom time. As the main character in the book is alone with a boy who is touching her female parts, she makes the statement that this is what high school is supposed to feel like. The boy then rapes her on the next page. Actually, the book and movie both contain two rape scenes.

I have to admit that, unlike the complaining professor, I haven’t read “Speak.” However, based on the descriptions of the book at Amazon and Wikipedia and of the movie at IMDb, neither has the professor read the book. Oh, sure, he turned the pages and looked at the words, that’s not the same thing.

Maybe I have this wrong, but it sounds like a novel about a young girl who’s date-raped, and the negative consequences that come of it. It sounds like a dark book with a dark theme, but soft pornography?

I’ll leave it to readers of the book to tell me whether or not cheerleaders getting group-rate abortions is treated as lighthearted and fun, and whether the cheerleaders are presented as sympathetic characters. However, to read a book about a girl’s rape and its consequences and then to focus on everything but that theme is strange. Highlighting the naughty bits and equating rape scenes with sex scenes is a bad way to read a book.

His reading of Slaughterhouse Five isn’t any better.

Another book I haven’t read supposedly “glorifies drunken teen parties, where teen girls lose their clothes in games of strip beer pong. In this book, drunken teens also end up on the beach, where they use their condoms to have sex.”

I have no comment about the appropriateness of the book for teens or anyone else, but for some reason that last clause cracked me up: “where they use their condoms to have sex.” It’s an awkward phrase, but as someone who once upon a time attended drunken teen parties, “using their condoms to have sex” is probably a best case scenario, and definitely better than date rape and alcohol poisoning.

In the diatribe, he says he “confronted the school board with these issues at the June school board meeting” but “nothing has been done to address these issues to date. This is unacceptable, considering that most of the school board members and administrators claim to be Christian. How can Christian men and women expose children to such immorality?”

You might think from that paragraph that that he was talking about something other than a public school. Books that glorify drunken teen sex might be inappropriate for all sorts of reasons, but Christianity is irrelevant.

On the other hand, some of his critics aren’t particularly relevant. In cases like this, there’s always someone talking about sex in the Bible. One commenter claims “your bible contains more sex and violence than ANYTHING Vonnegut ever wrote. Does that biblical incest wet your whistle?”

Probably the most famous and unpleasant incest scene in the Bible is in Genesis 19, where Lot’s two daughters get him drunk so they can have sex with him. However, it’ not exactly a pro-incest scene, just as “Speak” isn’t a pro-rape book. It’s just a reversal of the same mentality as the complaining professor, that the presence of sex itself has a meaning outside of the context of the book.

This is why so many book challengers look like simpletons. It’s because they read books so badly, and make their arguments based on keywords rather than literary meaning, except for the ones that just hate homosexuals.

The school board took a different approach to banning the books from the curriculum and the library. They set up a committee to create standards for age-appropriateness. The superintendent claimed that “We very clearly stayed out of discussion about moral issues. Our discussions from the get-go were age-appropriateness.”

That’s being disingenuous. Questions of age-appropriateness are always moral questions. The ALA response to challenged books is so annoying because it fails to acknowledge this as well. For the ALA, every book is appropriate for every reader, regardless of the book or the age. That’s the only possible interpretation of a policy that advocates fighting every book challenge, regardless of the reasoning.

Both simplistic challengers like the complaining professor and equally simplistic defenders like the ALA ignore all the subtlety in the debate, which is that there are moral and immoral books, and how they’re used and taught and read by people of various ages really matters. The oversimplification of the issue by both the ALA and most book challengers turns what should be a complicated debate into a farce.

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Comments

  1. Andrew says:

    Judging from Rate My Professor it looks like he’s just as winning, evenhanded, and charismatic in the classroom as he is at school board meetings.

  2. joneser says:

    Well, if they want to run the schools by “Christian principles”, then maybe they should be ponying up all of the money, instead of wasting taxpayer money on this.

  3. AL, I could not have said that better myself and I agree 100%, except no books have been banned in the USA for about half a century. But I read Slaughterhouse Five in high school, so I could be all screwed up.

  4. Norma says:

    The books sound like a total waste of money to me if he’s even close, and the professor should be complimented for doing the librarian’s job which is to filter the worthless out and do the best he can with a limited budget. Your ridiculing and demeaning his values is at about the same level of his esteem for yours.

  5. Annoyed Librarian says:

    Dan, this book is definitely banned from this curriculum and library. What it’s not is censored.

    • Okay, AL, I understand that. But when people talk about book banning, they mean books banned by national governments or the like. They do not mean every single time some book is removed for being inappropriate from some school in some community. If that were the case, there would be millions of book bannings each year. In New York City hundreds of copies of a single book were removed from hundreds of schools in a single incident. Surely the problem is not another case of another of the millions of incidents of schools appropriately removing inappropriate material from schools. Such selection policy decisions are made I guess on a nearly daily basis.

      So it’s okay to say “this book is definitely banned from this curriculum and library,” but it’s of little consequence if it was appropriately removed.

      Even Judith Krug said:

      “On rare occasion, we have situations where a piece of material is not what it appears to be on the surface and the material is totally inappropriate for a school library. In that case, yes, it is appropriate to remove materials. If it doesn’t fit your material selection policy, get it out of there.”

      “Marking 25 Years of Banned Books Week,” by Judith Krug, Curriculum Review, 46:1, Sep. 2006.

      Certainly Judith Krug cannot be counted among the book banners. Yet if you say “this book is definitely banned from this curriculum and library,” then you could argue that Judith Krug supports book banning “where a piece of material is not what it appears to be on the surface and the material is totally inappropriate for a school library.”

      That simply cannot be. Similarly, “”this book is definitely banned from this curriculum and library” cannot be. It was appropriately removed, yes, but not banned.

      And if the removal was not appropriate, that is a separate issue. That would mean the removal was inappropriate and should be reversed, but it was not banned. It simply was a mistake in removing the book in the first place. A mistake in the application of the school’s selection policy. That’s not banning. That’s a mistake.

  6. Annoyed Librarian says:

    And Norma, I wasn’t ridiculing his values. I was ridiculing his ability to analyze literature, as well as criticizing the irrelevance of criticizing a public school curriculum not following Biblical values. Notably, the committee doesn’t seem to have used the same reasoning he used, yet still removed two of the three books.

    • Paigers says:

      THIS. Also, Norma, he isn’t close at all with regard to “Speak,” which is actually an excellent YA book that deals with very real issues. I think what annoys me most about book “banning” (that’s for you, Dan) is that the people removing the books haven’t even read them.

    • @Paigers, “I think what annoys me most about book ‘banning’ (that’s for you, Dan) is that the people removing the books haven’t even read them.”

      I totally agree 100% with you. If you are going to complain about a book, you have to have read it all the way through. That may reduce the number of complaints right from the get go if people read the whole thing instead of reacting to a few excerpts.

      And for the people bringing the complaints, credibility plummets if you have not read the book–it behooves you to read it all the way through.

  7. JimBob says:

    1) We need to read the books.
    2) We need to have moral standards.
    3) These moral standards should be Christian.
    4) We should have professions in place who are of upright character and can mediate between the moral standards and access to materials.

    Part of the problem is that many immoral things are in libraries and so some overzealous people think they have to do the job we should be doing. The truth is that most librarians are more liberal then the public. Libraries are notoriously liberal, as are public schools.

    • LauraV says:

      “3) These moral standards should be Christian.”

      Why? What does Christianity have to do with curriculum unless we’re talking about a private, religious school?

    • Paigers says:

      I think your list could have stopped after #1.

    • Heather says:

      While we may debate whether the U.S. is a “Christian” country, it is indisputable that the U.S. has enshrined the separation of church and state in its constitution. Article VI of the Constitution states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” So your country’s own constitution opposes the idea that the moral standards of schools (a public trust) should be Christian. Naturally, private religious schools can teach whatever nutty ideas they want, but if you think a public school is teaching immoral ideas, you have to defeat these ideas with logic, not with “the Bible says…”

    • JimBobbaloo says:

      I don’t need an education of what our country’s history or Constitution says. I am not appealing to either of those to form my judgements since those appeals have already failed to produce a public code of ethics which is actually moral in all respects. We have a problem because our morals are bad. The library has attempted to block the door to all the sewage coming in from the outside and has not done a good job. Sure the problem didn’t start with the library, and the solution won’t either, but a solution for us could keep us from the evil morass of our society.

      Simple logic: The authority of the State (which is what most libraries are part of) is ultimately derived from God. It follows that our moral code should also be derived from the code of ethics He has laid out. Inasmuch as we have strayed from this, we have had problems in our society and libraries. Nobody has any foundation on which to stand when they make a judgement. Our morals are based on such amorphous things as “community standards”. All you need to do is challenge that, and away downstream goes your “moral” code.

  8. Leah says:

    I’ve read Speak. The context of the comment about the cheerleaders definitely was not presenting teenage sexual behavior in an encouraging, positive, or admiring light. Nothing in this book promoted teen sex. NOTHING.

    I agree that some YA lit seems far too similar to soft porn for my taste, but Speak is NOT one of those books. It’s beyond pathetic that this “professor” is so deficient in his research skills and basic reading comprehension.

  9. Paigers says:

    JimBobbaloo, your comment is completely nonsensical in the context of a library for the public. The end.

  10. soldier says:

    JimBobbalu, if you think the authority of the state is ultimately derived from God, well then you DO need an education in what the U.S. Constitution says. The very first words of the preamble make clear that the authority of the United States derives not from a divine source but from the people of the United States. And should you be tempted to retort that “God’s law” is higher, read the Supremacy Clause (Art. VI, clause 2) of the Constitution. And this most certainly has to do with public libraries – or any public institution – because ultimately what they do must conform with the supreme law of the land.

  11. ALI says:

    WHY WHY WHY can’t adults use books with sensitive topics such as rape or drug use to educate children about those things???

    Good parenting or teaching, in my opinion, is to educate young people to be prepared for the challenges that life will surely bring. It takes a mature, confident adult to understand that we shouldn’t run from the tough topics, but should embrace those topics as LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES.