Banned Books Week, which coincides with the new school year each autumn, is usually a time when scholars, book lovers, and legal analysts discuss how censorship impacts society and education. One would expect those in charge of our schools to hold all aspects of education- especially books- most dear.
As it turns out, at least one Superintendent has a different view.
Dawson Orr, of the Highland Park ISD in Texas, made the autonomous decision to ignore district policy and remove seven books from classroom shelves. In doing so, he set off a firestorm that reached the national level.
The books were reinstated and the district’s policies on book selection for classroom use and how challenges to those books are handled is under review.
Move forward four months and The Working Poor, a non-fiction work about poverty by David Skipler, is threatened yet again in the district on accusations that it is “sexually explicit” and “has no place in a high school English course”. The course is Advanced Placement English III and is a college-level course for juniors.
The book tells the true stories of people in the United States living just above the federal poverty line. The English department’s review of the book for the district listed an acknowledgement that the book contained some material that could be considered controversial, but deemed the work an asset “to build students’ capacity for empathy and knowledge of an issue facing millions in America and millions more across the world.”
The parent who filed the complaint stated that “The Working Poor is not a great work of literature or an example of rich writing we want our students to emulate. One must ask, is this the best piece of literature our students can read to learn to write?”
She argued that if English teachers want to teach global poverty and economic equality, alternate books such as Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse, We the Living, by Ayn Rand, and America the Beautiful, by Ben Carson, were more appropriate.
The disagreement being put forth is that material of a social or economic nature that speaks of economic inequality is unfit for a college-level English course; but material by Ayn Rand, whom is often associated with conservative policies and often quoted by the wealthiest members of American political and economic organizations is.
Carson is a regular on Fox News and other conservative media programs. His book has received no serious critical praise; in fact the most notable discussion about it has been the charge that passages were plagiarized.
So much for the complainant’s “quality literature” argument.
It should be noted that the Highland Park ISD is one of the wealthiest in Texas. Both sides in the debate acknowledge the perpetuated stereotypes.
The author of the contested book stated that he is unaware of it being challenged in any other district. Following the initial suspension in September, he added an afterward about the issue in his forthcoming book, Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword.
Shipler defends that there is nothing “prurient, obscene or sexually explicit in the book” and the anecdotes by women quoted in the book mentioning issues of sexual abuse and abortion only did so because they felt the trauma was relevant to their issues. He included them not only because they were valid topics for the subject matter, but also to describes challenges that cut across socioeconomic lines and teach readers about harsh realities.
The dispute has resulted in the formation of two opposing groups in the community: Speak Up for Standards, which objects to some mature content in high school books, and HP Kids Read, which opposes book suspensions and censorship.
Shipler mentions that he has conducted many discussions in schools across the country and has a granddaughter attending high school. He has found that not only do most children that age understand such material, they are fully capable of making informed and intelligent decisions and opinions related to that material.
Take, for example, Highland Park senior Gaby Gear. She said that, “It didn’t seem like a big deal when we read it. Just kind of the realities of life.”
Another senior, who read the book last year, said that those realities had an impact on her.
“To me, it kind of opened my eyes,” says Maddie Kelly. “I couldn’t imagine going through that.”
The proposed changes to the district’s policy on controversial material will be voted on later this month or in February. The new proposals include:
- Staff “place principle above personal opinion and reason above prejudice” when selecting instructional material. It ensures that books “are evaluated as a whole and selected for their strengths rather than rejected for their weaknesses” and are not “masked, clipped, or altered in any manner inconsistent with the author’s intent.” The removal of controversial materials from the library will be prohibited.
- The principal or a designee will be required to review guidelines with teachers each year about how to select instructional material and handle objections.
- Eliminate an approved book list for the high school. Teachers currently pick books from the list to teach in class or assign for outside reading. Instead, the district would create a new annual approval process. (Highland Park High School Principal, Walter Kelly, said the approved book list opens the district to criticism over books that haven’t been used for years. It also limits teachers to about 200 approved titles.)
- Changes to how the high school uses permission slips. Permission slips will go home to parents the first week of the school year along with a course overview. The early notice would allow teachers more time to plan alternative assignments if a parent or student “opts out.”
- Puts safeguards in place to avoid interruption of classroom lessons and a continuous cycle of challenges. It prohibits a formal challenge to the same material or an appeal to reinstate a removed material until two calendar years have passed.
- Parents can only formally challenge material that’s in use or scheduled for use. If a committee deems a book inappropriate, the superintendent can delay removal of the book “if he or she determines the immediate removal would be disruptive to the instructional process.”
- Creates a timeline for the annual review of books that teachers plan to use during the upcoming school year. It allows time for parents to review that list and raise objections.
For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at http://bbark.deepforestproductions.com/
This article has been updated since its date of publication. It was amended with the background information on Ben Carson and his book.