In what has to be one of the most bafflingly uneducated decisions a school district has ever made, officials representing Alaska's Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Borough School District voted 5-2 to remove five "controversial" books from the English literature curriculum.
This would be a thorny issue even if the reading list was indeed controversial, but it is not. The books in question are Invisible Man, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Catch-22, The Things They Carried, and The Great Gatsby. If these books are "controversial," the word has no meaning. The Great Gatsby, in fact, is often considered to be the quintessential work of 20th century American literature. It's perhaps the most widely read novel for U.S. high school students.
Try telling this to the Nurse Ratcheds over at the Mat-Su School Board. (That's a reference from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which I can't imagine any of them have read or else they would want to ban it as well.) One member of the board, Jeff Taylor, was quoted by the local news as making the following statement at last week's board meeting: "Is there a reason that we include books that we've labeled as controversial in our curriculum? I would prefer they were gone."
It's true that these books do contain some reference to sex and violence, some graphic language, and some discussions of mature subjects. They do that because they are educational: Young people should consume (age-appropriate) literature that actually teaches them something about the ugly, messy, complicated world. Would the school board prefer to have high schoolers still reading Dr. Seuss?
The most revealing comment came from board member Jim Hart, who said: "If I were to read this in a professional environment at my office, I would be dragged to the equal opportunity office." One almost feels some pity for the man who uttered this absurd statement—he is so beaten down by a culture of obedience to workplace political correctness that he thinks it is his job to similarly sanitize the small corner of the world over which he exerts some small authority.
I've never read The Things They Carried or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but the other three were all included in my high school English curriculum. Other than 1984, there was no book more important to me becoming a libertarian than Catch-22—it poignantly and humorously skewers incompetent bureaucrats and warmongers. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is a more challenging read, but a vital one: For many high school students, it's probably the first book they read that discusses 20th-century racism from the perspective of a disillusioned radical leftist. Ironically, an "equal opportunity" dictate leading to the banning of an anti-racism book is exactly the kind of madness that Invisible Man is criticizing. (And Catch-22, come to think of it.)
The only good thing about this story is that the board's decision has been met with universal scorn. According to KTUU:
River Kelly, a high school student at Mat-Su Career and Tech, told KTUU what he was hearing from his friends. "Almost everybody I've talked to has been shocked, demanding that these bans be taken back," the sophomore said.
Former Colony high school English teacher Peter Hopple was even more succinct saying, "I'm stunned, absolutely stunned."
"I'm pretty familiar with all the books," said Mike Okeson, the principal at Mat-Su Career & Tech, who used to teach English. "If you ask me to articulate for you what's controversial in "The Great Gatsby," I could not do that."
Channel 2 searched for favorable reactions to the board's decision but was unable to find any prior to publication of this story.