January 13, 2012

Not Beloved in the Heartland


Yes, it does

In December, Plymouth-Canton Community Schools (Plymouth, Michigan) Superintendent Jeremy M. Hughes removed Toni Morrison‘s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel,
Beloved and Graham Swift‘s Booker-shortlisted Waterland from the high-school curriculum after a complaint from Barb Dame, a district parent—who has referred to Beloved as “pornography.” One week later, Hughes modified his decision, writing that “to remove the book without instituting the complaint and review process…,” in accordance with the school district’s administrative guidelines, was “overwhelmingly objectionable to the

As reported on the Canton, MI “patch” website: “You Said It: Banned Book ‘Waterland’ Belongs at PCEP: Majority of parents appear unhappy with Plymouth-Canton Community Schools’ interim
superintendent Jeremy Hughes’ decision to pull English classic by award-winning writer Graham Swift.” (In compiling this post I have relied almost entirely on the coverage by Patch reporters John McKay and Peg McNichol, and on readers’ comments appended to their stories.)

Hughes referred the decision to “a committee of teachers, parents, administrators, literary experts, and community members who will be invited to read the book, [and] consider arguments for and against its use.” Those opposed to the books’ reinstatement claim that the books entered the curriculum without first undergoing a mandated review
process, a claim that has been rebutted by teachers. Tuesday, about 100 people attended a school board meeting to debate the removals.

Although Waterland is reported to have been included in the district’s curriculum for the past eight years, the objection came after it was assigned in a college-credit, advanced placement English class, taught by Gretchen Miller at Salem High

Parents & Community Advocates for Plymouth-Canton Community Schools (P-CAP), have supplied an accounting of all they find objectionable in the books. The link to their inventory of Beloved is here. As they say on their website: ”You will find it unbelievable!”

Judging from published comments both within and in response to news reports, nobody on either side of the debate wants to answer the grievances of his opponents.

The P-CAP website reasonably asserts that “Parents have a right to
refuse that their child to be subject to objectional [sic] and obscene content.”

A Mr. Mike Pare plausibly objects that “This isn’t
about the book itself… This is about one person [Superintendent Hughes] making these types of decisions based solely on his opinion and the complaint of one parent.” [see “comments,” here] And while that objection is being redressed, in the form of the advisory committee, the Dame’s complaint is most certainly about the book. Of Beloved Mrs. Dame said, “I don’t see the value of this novel in the school curriculum, I just don’t see it.”

The superintendent’s action was impolitic, naïve, in violation of his administrative guidelines, and understandably distressing to the other students and parents, but is the value of these books—any book—and their place in a school curriculum beyond questioning?

Almost none of the publicly available comments discuss either book on its merits.

In lieu of addressing or defending the specific words, passages, and ideas that gave rise to the complaints, anonymous “critics” and “scholars” are repeatedly invoked, as are Morrison’s Pulitzer, Swift’s Booker (for Last Orders), and other accolades. The books are “celebrated.” They’re  “award-winning,” or “classic,” or “considered a modern classic by critics;” I sympathize with the parent who finds this insufficient, and am tempted to applaud resistance to
this kind of appeal to—a remote—authority (argumentum ad verecundiam).

The teacher, Ms. Miller, appears not to have offered any comment on the content of the books. Of Waterland she is quoted as saying, “There aren’t a lot of books that teach post-modern narrative structure, and this is great because it’s a teacher describing the theory to his students. It’s a great teaching
tool.” This is not likely to comfort or enlighten the perplexed Mrs. Dame.

Many respondents have suggested that, if they oppose the course of study, the Dames should withdraw their daughter from the class or have her study an alternative text (she was assigned William Faulkner‘s As I Lay Dying) rather than demand that Beloved or Waterland be withdrawn from the curriculum—and that also seems reasonable. After all, it appears that parents were informed of the syllabus and required to sign consent

Other recurring arguments in the comments include: the Bible is also full of sex and violence; students of that age are already aware of worse; that this worse is encountered on the internet and in the music and films that the students are already inured to; the students will be leaving for college soon anyway and can’t be protected from the real world; the students are already adults; banning books only increases demands for those books.

Most of the commenters are at least civil, even if few of them treat the Dames and their cohort without condescension. Brian Read, a teacher who has taught Beloved for ten years without challenge, is one of the few.  “I believe they are looking out for the best interests of their child,” he said . “As a parent myself, I understand that.”

Dan O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Melville House.