CSotD: First the fury, then the facts

 I don’t disagree with Steve Brodner (or Neil Gaiman)’s take on the idea of banning Art Spiegelman’s now-classic graphic memoir, Maus.

Or, at least, I wouldn’t disagree if what is being reported were what had happened.  As DD Degg noted here yesterday, the Daily Beast reports that “The McMinn County (Tenn.) school board’s 10 members voted to axe Maus from curricula and school libraries.”

His report is accurate: That’s what the Daily Beast wrote. And I found the same information in a few other places.

Here’s the problem: I didn’t find it in the minutes of the McMinn County school board’s meeting, in which having the book in school libraries was never discussed.

Mike Cochran- To clarify, your motion was to remove this book from the classroom and have them replace it with something different, right?
Jonathan Pierce- My motion was to remove this particular book from our curriculum and that if possible, find a book that will supplement the one there.

The motion, which was approved, was to remove Maus from the eighth grade ELA curriculum, not the library, which was never mentioned.

That’s not a small difference. In fact, it’s a rather huge one, because I’d be strongly opposed to removing it from the district’s libraries.

Meanwhile, I’m not sure it belongs in the eighth grade curriculum.

I’ve given Maus to my grandchildren before they were in eighth grade, but I give them all sorts of books that I expect will challenge them, in part because I know them well enough to think they might be ready and in part because it’s okay with me if they put it aside and read it sometime later.

But when I wrote about Maus in 1995, in connection with a display of its art at the St. Lawrence University library, I said it should be taught to juniors and seniors, but that it only be “recommended reading” — perhaps with a disclaimer — for junior high students.

It wasn’t an issue of the eight nasty words or the nekkid lady mouse, but an issue of eighth graders still thinking in very concrete terms.

By then, I had been doing my presentation on political cartoons for a couple of years, and I found that, while the juniors and seniors really enjoyed it and got a lot out of it, only a fraction of my seventh and eighth grade audiences were able to tune in.

For a large portion of their classmates, you could have them memorize that the Eagle is the United States and the Bulldog is Great Britain and the Bear is Russia, but they simply couldn’t process more complex metaphors yet.

Having also tried to lead a group of bright eighth graders through “Hamlet” some years before that, I had learned just how concrete their little minds are. They understood that he was mad about his father’s murder, sure, but his complicated relationship with Ophelia was way beyond them.

They had neither the maturity nor the mileage.

Going back to those school board minutes, there were some dumb things said — as is generally true of all school board meetings — and I was flummoxed by their insistence that whiting out the offending words would be a violation of copyright that would get them sued.

But I appreciated the slippery-slope part of the discussion, that, if they blanked out the cuss words and the nekkid lady, they’d want to start blanking out the dead bodies, too.

And I’d note again that they wanted to find a different book with which to teach the Holocaust, one they felt was more age-appropriate for an eighth grade class.

You’re free, of course, to disagree with their decision or with my discussion of it or both, though if you’re picturing a brilliant teacher with a small class of gifted and talented 12-year-olds, that’s cheating.

Anyway, they didn’t “ban” it and they didn’t take it out of their libraries. They took it out of the eighth grade curriculum.

My snarky take being that, whether or not eighth graders are mature enough to read such a challenging book, professional journalists at the Daily Beast and a bunch of other media outlets sure as hell ought to be bright enough to read a simple set of school board minutes and summarize them accurately. (Update: The Washington Post did a good job.)

My other response being that, according to CBR.com, some people have stepped up to offer free copies of the book to any families in that school district who want their kids to read it.

I think that’s great, and I’d think it even better if this whole misreported kerfuffle led a lot of parents and grandparents to make sure their kids had solid, challenging reading material.

Obviously, I wouldn’t have given copies of Maus, or of Persepolis or They Called Us Enemy or Kent State or American Born Chinese, to my grandkids, if I didn’t think they should read those sorts of things.

And if I didn’t want them to grow up as bright members of society who at least take the time to vote in local elections, even if they don’t run for school board themselves.



On a lighter note, Paul Fell observes that Lee Enterprises is reaching out to its stockholders, asking them to support its attempts to avoid a hostile takeover by their fellow vulture capitalist, Alden Global Capital.

I’ve worked for both chains and, while I feel bad for newspapers in general, I am getting some amusement over this example of karma among the scavengers.

There’s an old joke that says ambivalence is the feeling of watching your mother-in-law go over a cliff in your brand-new Cadillac, but in this case, there’s no ambivalence: I hate that damn car, too.

And, I’m glad that vultures have such large nostrils.


7 thoughts on “CSotD: First the fury, then the facts

  1. Thanks for posting a link to the school board meetings notes. It presents a much different picture than I would have imagined from what I’d previously read.

    It sounds like they had previously decided to redact the offending words from all book copies provided to students. I wonder who was given that task (it’d be 400-500 books) and how much it cost the school district. I can only imagine how that would appear on this person’s future resume.

    As I understand it, one concern was that a student would read the ‘offensive’ words in the book and then repeat them in school — the words being a violation of the schools’ conduct policy. It reminded me of the early Simpson’s episode where, returning home from church, Bart announces that they talked about hell in Sunday school, and his use of the word hell offends Marge.

    I was also amused by the one parent’s concern about a poem that used the word “ecstacy” (lyrics from the 1921 song “I’m Just Wild About Harry”).

  2. Thank you for describing your experience teaching middle-schoolers political cartoons. The “appropriate” discussion is usually about either surface content (bad words) or general content (horrifying human behavior), but rarely about reading comprehension or ability to apprecate complex layers of meaning. Students should stretch, but not so far beyond their grasp that it’s pointless.

  3. Thank you for the sober and thoughtful analysis.

    My only contention is that people in grade 8 are 14, not 12, and imo that’s a big difference. If 14 year olds struggle to grasp metaphors beyond eagles and bears, then something’s wrong. 14 was once old enough to run a farm.

    Unless, of course, in the US grade eights are 12, which contradicts how grades work in other countries.

  4. I was 12 entering 8th grade (New York State), while any of my classmates born after Dec 30 were already 13.

    So, by year’s end, some of us were 13, some were 14. Split the difference and call it 13. Still, if the Holocaust unit is taught in the first semester, some students will still be 12.

  5. Apparently I was ten when I started sixth grade (northern Minnesota), though I turned eleven a couple of weeks later. in late September.

    I didn’t actually “remember” that, but I knew I was seventeen when I started college (turning eighteen a couple of weeks into my freshman year), and so “counted back” to sixth grade.

  6. No, the Guardian did a pretty good job, though “classroom” might be misinterpreted to include “library.” I’d have used the term “curriculum” to be more clear.

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