Well, to say that I have stirred up a hornet's nest would be an understatement. My last post on the so-called Montgomery County, Kentucky "censorship" case has received more hits than any post featured on this blog since its inception. It has also garnered quite a few comments. Rather than answer the hornets in the comments section of the earlier post (the buzzing there has gotten to be deafening), I'm going to answer them here, in separate posts, since I think the points are important enough to be featured on the main page.
I don't know, but it seems that the comments are of two main types: First, from First Amendment Fundamentalists (I'm detecting the presence of librarians who mistakenly think the First Amendment quite literally protects any form of expression), and secondly from public school English teachers with rather low standards of what constitutes good literature. I don't doubt the sincerity of either group, but, as I will indicate below, the arguments for their positions are lacking in a number of respects.
Let me take the first of these arguments today, and I'll address the other arguments as the week progresses:
"Excuse me, sir, but I fail to see how you can reasonably comment about books you've never read." (From Ellen Hopkins). That would depend on what my purpose was. Certainly I cannot offer any kind of exhaustive evaluation of the books if I haven't read them, and if I were actually reviewing the books, I would be obligated to do just that. But I'm not reviewing the books, I'm simply commenting on whether or not an action by a school district constitutes censorship, whether there is a valid line that can be drawn between books that deserve to be in an accelerated college preparatory curriculum, and whether parents who have read the books are in a position to take part in that judgment.
I said very clearly I had not read the books, indicating that I was giving only a tentative assessment of them--a skepticism, nothing more, about their worth. I based that skepticism on publishers comments and reviews of the books--as well as actual passages from the books. The argument that one is not allowed to have and express a tentative judgment of creative works is a rather strange position to try to defend. If one cannot glean a tentative opinion of a book from publishers' blurbs and reviews, then maybe Hopkins could tell me why they have such blurbs and reviews in the first place.
Are we really allowed no qualitative judgments about things that we have not actually experienced ourselves? If someone wanted to show "Debbie Does Dallas" in a high school classroom, would we really be required to view it ourselves in order to be justified in saying it was not appropriate? Are we supposed to refrain from warning our children not to take crack or meth because we haven't tried them ourselves? No one is arguing that these books are in the same class as these things, but the logic is the same.
We make tentative judgments like this all the time. In fact, a tentative judgment is required in order to decide whether to read a book (rather than do something else) in the first place. In fact, I wonder how many of the people criticizing me for expressing doubts over the merit if their paeans to teen angst have read the older and better works that the parents in Montgomery County would rather have in this accelerated curriculum.
In any case, unless you are a parent making a formal complaint, one isn't required to have read a book in order to express a vagrant opinion on a blog of whether or not parents who have read the books have the right to make the complaint. In this case the parents opposed including them in the curriculum because a) they did read the books and found them wanting and b) they did not consider them to contribute to the express purpose of the class, which is to prepare them for college at an advanced level.
Nor is one even required to know the specific literary qualities of a book to have an informed opinion of whether it belongs in a curriculum. For that, all that is necessary is to know what kind of book it is. And that's what, in spite of Hopkins opinion, makes my judgment so easy: Popular teen fiction doesn't belong in the curriculum of an accelerated high school college prep course.
Let me underscore this aspect of the Montgomery County case once again so we are very clear about it (Where's my megaphone?): THIS IS AN ACCELERATED COLLEGE PREPARATORY HIGH SCHOOL CLASS. Did we hear that?
A class like this is meant to challenge good students intellectually. If your students are challenged intellectually by these kinds of books, then they don't belong in this kind of class. There seems to be this assumption that students in an accelerated high school class are not capable of handling serious literature. If that's the case, then why are they in an accelerated high school class? And if you say that even kids in an accelerated college prep class can't handle classic books, then you have unwittingly acquiesced to the low appraisal that some of us regularly give to public schools.
And another thing. If you are going to make the argument that these kinds of books belong in that kind of class, then you are not an intellectually serious person. Sorry. That's not a moral judgment, just a statement of fact. If you don't like that judgment, then I'm afraid we're operating upon two completely different academic planets: mine, which is actually academic, and yours, which is not.
I fear that the real problem here is one I have drawn attention to on this blog over and over again: many of the people running our elementary and secondary educational institutions are not well-educated people. Well-educated people don't think that valuable academic time should be spent on popular teen books in advanced academic classes, the vast majority of which (the books I mean) will likely be forgotten in 20 years, if they last that long.
The argument is not whether these books are good books or not. I have expressed my skepticism that they are--no more than a literary hypothesis to be confirmed or not. The argument is over whether books that have proved themselves to have merit by standing the test of time, many of which are well within the grasp of moderately intelligent high school students, should be displaced by books that, whatever their worth, are unproven.
We are talking about students many of whom have not read Huckleberry Finn, the Grapes of Wrath, the Great Gatsby, and Crime and Punishment--and we're going to spend class time in a supposedly advanced high school class parsing the deepest darkest emotions of "Sophie" as she gets ready for her date with "smoky, sexy Dylan"?
Is this really what we've come to in our schools?