Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Texas High School Teacher Suspended for Book Choice

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports that in Tuscola, Texas, a 9th-grade English teacher has been suspended (on paid leave) after a student's parents complained to police about a book their child read by Pullitzer-Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy called Child of God from the 9th-grade reading list . The 1974 novel is a story about an outsider falsely accused of rape, who then begins killing people and living in a cave with their decomposing bodies.

The reading list was compiled by all of the high-school English teachers for an advanced Placement class. Last week the school board voted to keep the three-year veteran teacher on paid leave even though more than 120 parents attended the meeting asking that he be reinstated. In fact most of the school's parents are in favor of reinstating the teacher. The teacher has not been charged with anything, but is being investigated for distributing harmful material to a minor. In the meantime, the book has been deleted from the reading list by school officials.

My first response to this story was, "here we go again."

My second was, "why did the parents report this to the police instead of the principal?" Were they concerned about the reading list or were they exploiting an opportunity to push their own agenda?

It occurs to me:

  • that the list was assembled by a group of high school English teachers not just the one on suspension.

  • since the author is a Pullitzer Prize winner and this is a 34-year old title, the English teachers must have agreed that despite it's macabre story line, it had redeeming value or it would not be on the list.

  • the student chose to read this book. If the parents were that concerned, why didn't they help their child select a "more appropriate" title?

  • if we accept the premise that a community has the right to decide what is and is not offensive,(even though it is clearly a violation of the first amendment) and we know that most of the school's parents are in favor of reinstating the teacher, can we infer that the parents filing the complaint are out of step with the majority of the town's 700 inhabitants?

As I've stated before, banning books makes them more attractive to the people. What credentials to these parents have for judging whether a book is or isn't worthy of study? Why didn't these parents choose to minimize the alleged "damage" the book produced by quietly discussing the book with their child and then moving on to reading a book that was more in line with their personal moral code? Why report it to the police?

I understand that definitions of "good writing" vary and there will never be consensus. It seems clear to me, however, that these people must be making a larger point, although I'm in the dark as to what that might be. The situation might be more understandable if it were a current book reflecting today's pop culture. But, it's not. Unfortunately, the knee-jerk reaction to book challenges in schools is to pull the title. And predictably, that is what happened in Tuscola. One can only hope that cooler heads will prevail in the end and that nobody has to leave town.

What invariably happens when books are challenged or banned is that they achieve a stature far greater than they would have claimed had the book not been challenged. The American Library Association (ALA) website gives a comprehensive history of book challenges in this country as well as helpful advice in coping with a book challenge.

No comments: