Thursday, June 25, 2009

Banning Alexie?

"I BEGAN READING, AND I started to cross out sections that I didn't want him to read," she said. "Soon I thought, 'Wait, this is not appropriate; he is not reading this.' "

The "she" is Antioch, Illinois parent Jennifer Andersen, the "he" is her 14-year old son, and the book is Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, last year's winner of the National Book Award for Young Adult Fiction. As it happens, The Absolutely True Diary is also a recent addition to the Antioch High School's curriculum for incoming freshmen.

Andersen, who is quoted in a Chicago Times article, claims the book does not meet community standards and wants it removed from the curriculum. She and other parents have complained about vulgar language and overt sexuality in Alexie's short novel, arguing the book's content is at variance with what should be condoned in high school.

Andersen, who is clearly well-meaning, falls into the trap that plagues many parents, lawmakers, and even other students--she assumes that teaching a text is the same as condoning the content of that text.

For example, one of her complaints is that the book contains curse words that would not be allowed in the halls of the school. And so, by having students read this book and these words, the school is, in effect, putting its stamp of approval on those words.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Teaching is not endorsing.

In fact, some of the best teaching arises out of difficult material--material the teacher and student find objectionable, complex, and problematic. In truth, you actually want your child to work through potentially inappropriate material, and ideally, that will happen in a sound educational environment. This is because you want your kids--and other kids--to have good reading and interpretation skills. You want them not to misread. You want them armed with the ability to know the difference between advocating and expressing.

Sure, I think it's probably not a good idea to have high school freshmen reading Tropic of Cancer, but it's a great idea for students to read Alexie's novel--written for and about young kids--in high school.

Back to this notion of community standards. Education is not a strip club, it's not church, it's not the public pool. Education is about ideas, and it's about acquiring skills and abilities that make young people smarter and more capable older people. I'm fascinated by the fact that the parents ignore the theme of the book, whose message is entirely positive and totally in line with community standards (whatever that might mean) and focus instead on language their kids probably use on a daily basis.

Americans have never been good readers; we often choose surface over substance. This is a fine example.

Ignore the message; kill the messenger.

Repeat the cycle.

It's refreshing, then, to read that Antioch school board President Wayne Sobczak thinks the book will get to stick around.

Good news for now, but what if they want to teach Huck Finn?


  1. Okay, her son is 14 not 9. I think this is not only an example of reading the words but not the message, but also total helicopter parenting. And we wonder why 20 year-olds aren't equipped to be adults these days. I, personally, can't wait to read these books now.

  2. Dean, love this post...and MamaChristy makes a great point. Teaching college freshman, I've often been amazed at how many parents still feel the need to micro-manage what their children (adults) are exposed to.