Censorship

Alaskan School District Gets Rid of The Great Gatsby, 4 Other 'Controversial' Books

The Mat-Su School Board evidently doesn't understand the purpose of a school.

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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.

NEXT: Brickbat: I'll Think of Something

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  1. “The Great Gatsby, in fact, is often considered to be the quintessential work of 20th century American literature.”

    No it isn’t.

    1. See how controversial it is! 😉

    2. What’s all this about Ralph Ellison?

      The only Invisible Man worth a 12 year old’s time is H.G. Wells’

      1. For a twelve-year-old, perhaps. But for a high-schooler, BOTH are great reads.

    3. It’s complete shit. Why the hell are kids forced to read it in high school? Same thing with just about anything written by Hemingway. It was such a chore to read those boring shitty books.

    4. Catch-22

      If it’s not controversial, then what’s the problem with banning it?

      1. Are boring assignments controversial? Better not go there…

    5. It’s been a long time since I read Gatsby, but I remember my reaction as something like, “That’s 3 hours of my life I’ll never get back.” The main characters were unlikable, amoral, and useless. If the focus of the book had been on the mechanic and his cheating wife Myrtle, it might have been possible to get emotionally invested in the story, but I could not care whether Gatsby and Daisy lived or died. Nor is there anything to learn from the story, except maybe to avoid involvement with the idle flapper-era rich. So I’d be quite happy with the school board’s decision to ban Gatsby, except that I strongly expect that it’s replacement will be even more puerile…

      I also read Invisible Man and Catch 22 long ago; they were profoundly disturbing, but teach lessons that suburban white kids need to learn. I only know about the Maya Angelou book from the Wikipedia synopsis, but it may be a good companion piece to Invisible Man. I read The Things They Carried more recently; it’s disturbing like all good war stories, and may still be relevant. A good high school education will take kids out of their comfort zone, and these books do that well. Banning these 4 books shows that the school board does not understand that, and are interfering with rather than promoting education.

  2. They told me if I voted for Donald Trump, school districts would be banning controversial books….

    1. The Art of the Deal?

  3. 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.”

    Imaginary scenario:
    One member of the public was quoted by the local news as making the following statement at last week’s board meeting: “Is there a reason that we include members that we’ve labeled as petty tyrants in our board? I would prefer they were gone.”

    1. Far too many people wish they had the power to vanish things they don’t like to the cornfield.

      Of course, if I had that power, I would vanish them.

      1. If I had that power, the entire city of Washington DC would vanish.

        1. Cornfield = swamp ?

    2. “I would prefer they were gone.”

      aka, “I don’t like them and now I’m in a low level chicken shit position to do something about it in my new little world.”

  4. “If I were to read this in a professional environment at my office, I would be dragged to the equal opportunity office.”

    Spoken by someone who has never worked in a professional office

    “and then they put me in the equal rights stocks while my minority and LGBT colleagues pelt me with vegan day old bread, which is how things are always done in business-y professional office environments ever since the 60s mandated that black women should no longer be raped and enslaved at work”

    1. I think I remember that scene in my corporate sensitivity training video!

    2. LGBT. Bigot. There are more. Lots more. Either be more sensitive or, wait, strike that. Be more sensitive immediately, take back everything that you ever said or else you will be executed and then tried for crimes against peoplekind.

  5. “The Mat-Su School Board evidently doesn’t understand the purpose of a school.”

    Perhaps they do:

    https://sagaciousnewsnetwork.com/the-six-purposes-of-schooling-john-taylor-gatto/

    1. John gatto always has a cat in his pants

      1. Interesting that Gatto wrote the Monarch Notes for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which Soave mentions above.

  6. Other than 1984, there was no book more important to me becoming a libertarian than Catch-22—it poignantly and humorously skewers incompetent bureaucrats…

    I can’t imagine why a school board member would have a problem with that.

    1. Fahrenheit 451 is pretty libertarian, too.

      1. Some of our best “libertarian” works come out of science fiction, Huxley, Heinlein, Orwell, etc.

  7. “If you ask me to articulate for you what’s controversial in “The Great Gatsby,” I could not do that.”

    Seriously? It’s cynical as all get-out and even might be described as nihilistic. That’s even before we get to the Jewish racketeer with human molars for cufflinks.

    You can say it’s a great canonical work of American literature, but if it’s not controversial you’re doing it wrong.

    1. Dr Seuss is controversial as well.

      Green eggs and Ham encourages eating rotten food!

      1. And his cuff links were made from grinch bicuspids.

      2. He has been accused of racism. Sneetches, the drawings in Mulberry Street of a Chinese character, other examples. He has been accused of radical environmentalism as in the Lorax.

        Load of crap all of it. It is like the Huck Finn so called controversy. There isn’t one. Read all those books and more.

        Catch-22 is such a classic.

        “ Orr (one of the men trying to get out of flying missions) was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them.”

        See Corporal Klinger in MASH. He was the sanest person there.

        1. Let’s not forget Star Wars and the little beady-eyed desert nomad traders who try to rip you off. What were their names again?

  8. Remember, the MatSu Valley is Palin country. Maybe they can’t see Russia from the back porch, but they sure can see subversive ideas at least when sober. Or maybe better when not sober.

  9. Would the school board prefer to have high schoolers still reading Dr. Seuss?
    Horton Hires A Ho
    Cocks in socks
    There’s a what in my butt?
    The Snitches
    Cop on Pop

    1. +I would not, could not with a goat

      1. + The Pocket Book of Boners (an actual Seuss title)

        1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pocket_Book_of_Boners

          Illustrating how much language can change in a few decades.

      2. Speciesphobia is not woke!

  10. More interesting for some up-and-coming reporter would be to dig in to what books remain in their school. I mean, “Mat-Su” school district? What have they got, room for 10 books total, and they had to make room because someone died and left their entire library of DC and Marvel comic books, so something had to go?

    1. Hmmm. Prompted me to check. Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, around 19k students, 47 individual elementary, middle and high schools, 10% charter. Largest towns of Palmer and Wasilla are less than 20k people, but total Borough population of 100k plus. About 50 freeway miles from Anchorage.

      So they probably have a few libraries.

    2. It is part of the Anchorage Metropolitan Statistical Area, and must include the northern suburbs of Anchorage. But it’s about 200 miles across. I expect that most of it is wilderness or very lightly-populated rural, but with over 50,000 people concentrated near Anchorage. So the school district should support both conventional schools, and homeschooling for the distant residents. That makes the libraries especially important.

      But this isn’t about the books in the library, but a restriction on which ones are used in class. The Know-Nothings on the school board don’t want the kids exposed to disturbing books about the rest of the USA.

  11. The Great Gatsby, in fact, is often considered to be the quintessential work of 20th century American literature.
    NO
    GWTW FTW!

    It’s perhaps the most widely read novel for U.S. high school students.

    WTF?

    1. Never read it. Might have been expected to and bs’ed my way through tests, but definitely didn’t read. Watched the movie and thought the story was shit

    2. They sure as hell can’t be reading Catcher In The Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Grapes Of Wrath, or anything by Ernest Hemingway these days – far too many words for a 21st century high-schooler whose literature primarily consists of emojis and lolcat memes. Who gives a shit what people used to think and say back in the olden days, are schools still teaching flint knapping and mammoth hunting? No? Then why are they still teaching reading and writing and abstract thought and other stuff that has no bearing on modern life in our glorious new socialist utopia?

  12. The school board should be allowed to ban any book they seem offensive for any reason. If you have no limits on media consumption the next thing you know is they will be showing extreamly offensive things like “the eternal jew” or “hop on pop”… It was so sad the way they hopped on pop

    1. Especially since there is no mention of pop consenting – – – – –

  13. Moby Dick has the 19th century sewn up, no question. For the 20th, Gatsby certainly has earned its place in the culture, Andy Kaufman once read the whole book (in an English accent) before an audience of college students. I prefer Vonnegut, Pynchon or Gaddis who are all more marginal than Fitzgerald. Kaufman’s not going to be performing any of their works any time soon. For me, the 20th century Moby Dick has to be Lolita, if it can be considered American literature.

    Doubtless Lolita was banned throughout the whole of Alaska decades ago.

    1. Atlas Shrugged is the most widely read book of all time, next to the Bible.

      1. Atlas isn’t even Rand’s best work, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s ‘read the bible.’ It usually serves as decoration rather than reading material.

        1. I haven’t read the Bible cover to cover, but I know quite a few people who have. What do you think they do at bible schools?

          Atlas has the best drawn progressive, collectivist villains of her works. If it had been edited down by 30% it could have been better literature.

    2. What is Huckleberry Finn, 19th century chopped liver? Personally, if I had to choose one 20th Century American novel as required reading, it’d probably be Naked Lunch. Kids, here’s some fucked up shit that makes no sense but you’re going to be forced to endure it anyway. Welcome to the 20th century.

      1. I’ve always preferred British novels of the 19th century to Americans. It seems to me that Moby Dick alone is strong enough to stand with the best of the British.

        For those interested in such things, Moby Dick is probably the most sexually and racially diverse novel of its time. It was criticized for this on publication, sank into obscurity and was not ‘rediscovered’ until the 1930s. I’ve never been interested in Mark Twain’s work and maybe I’m dismissing him too lightly.

        I like Naked Lunch but think it’s really too strong for high schoolers. Besides, Burroughs is something of a one note Johnny. Naked Lunch was his first book, and he spent the rest of his career milking it for material.

  14. “Would the school board prefer to have high schoolers still reading Dr. Seuss?”

    I’m pretty darn sure that’s racist too; “thing” one and “thing” two? Talk about objectifying.

    1. Good thing (!) he didn’t use self. That would be too personal.

    2. They would prefer straight-up communist agitprop, but they’ll take what they can get.

    3. “I’m pretty darn sure that’s racist too”

      Maybe you should read it, first. I don’t think any of the books mentioned are racist.

      1. Maybe you should look into Dr. Seuss’ past.

        1. I’ll leave that to tendentious critics and other wind bags.

          1. Or you could take a look at his early artwork.

      2. I have read these books, asshole. And I rather doubt you have, pretentious moralizing windbag.

        1. “I have read these books, asshole.”

          And yet you think that the work of Dr Suess is racist. You’re either a moron, a poseur, or both.

    4. Also The Sneetches, teaching that you shouldn’t change your body for social reasons and popularity, will get you cancelled by the hundreds of millions of followers of the Kardashians.

  15. Great Gatsby is all white, male, cis, wealth privilege. No one should ever read it!! Down the memory hole!!

  16. If a book has managed to claw its way into the canon, it wasn’t by being all sweetness and light. And it won’t keep its place in the canon by posing as noncontroversial.

    One key question: What will they put on the reading lists if the old standbys are removed? That should be enough to argue in favor of the standard lists.

    1. The democrat party platform?

      1. Hmmm. Let’s puzzle this out through step-by-step logic.

        Censorship is a mainstay of authoritarianism, therefore authoritarians rely on censorship. Authoritarians exist in mostly the farther left versions of liberalism, but throughout the entire spectrum of conservatism (read Jonathan Haidt for more on this). For at least this reason alone (there are other factors both ways of course), there are far more total conservative authoritarians than total liberal authoritarians, and thus a greater amount of conservative authoritarian-promoted censorship. (Though I’ll agree with you that there’s too much liberal censorship, too.)

        And the primary school district of Sarah Palin’s Walissa, Alaska, is banning the teaching of Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man” from their high schools because…Walissa is a hotbed of liberal Democratic Party censorship?

        Perhaps you’d like to think that through.

        1. School boards are liberal Democrat strongholds. So, yes, that has been thought through, by us thinkers.

          1. Joe, Joe Joe. Nearly all school boards are selected through officially nonpartisan elections but in truth, reflect and often amplify the partisanship of their areas.

            Thus, school boards in liberal areas tend to be, as you say “liberal Democrat strongholds.” Conversely, school boards in conservative areas tend to be conservative Republic strongholds. This is demonstrated throughout the nation with liberal school boards in liberal cities, and conservative school boards in their conservative suburbs.

            In the area we’re talking about, the liberals are those big city fast talkers from that hotbed of progressivism, Anchorage. Palmer and Walissa in the Mat-Su School District form a brave conservative haven 50 miles north.

            But since, what elected school board members really tend to be are budding authoritarians eager flex their power, the particular case in question concerns, yes, conservative authoritarians on a mission from God and Trump to save the tender minds of little Bobby and Susie from the degradations of sex, bad language, blasphemy, and other modern ideas that don’t instill the proper moral lesson.

            A proposition. Thinkers understand the world consists of both those that agree with them and those that don’t, and not all those who do dumb things are of the opposite political party. Joe demonstrates he doesn’t understand that. Ergo, Joe’s claimed membership in the community of “us thinkers” is logically disputable.

  17. Given that absolutely everything is controversial these days, I can’t imagine there are any books at all left, and the absence of books is itself controversial.

    1. What do we call this?

      Facebook 451?

  18. We never hear about the books the librarians ban, or the ones the school administrators want banned and the librarian agrees.

  19. To focus on “Catch-22” (as the one I was most familiar with even before pulling it it off the shelf last year, to re-read as solace during the Trump Interregnum), another quote from the school board about that work was “There are a handful of racial slurs, the characters speak with typical ‘military men’ misogyny and racist attitudes of the time. There are scenes of violence both hand to hand and with guns, and violence against women.”

    It’s hard to imagine a WWII novel without guns and violence. And while I was a little surprised by the amount of racism/misogyny (which I hadn’t remembered from before, and that may say more about me than the book), it reflected the attitudes of the times, wasn’t gratuitous, and was most often used to illuminate the traits of negative characters.

    From the school board’s comments, their real concern seemed to be that all the books tend to portray authority figures in a less than positive light (well, that and sex, language, blasphemy, and proper moral lessons, and we can’t have that nonsense being injected into little Billy’s and Susie’s minds, can we?

    I haven’t read Tim O’Brien’s 1990 “The Things They Carried,” collection of short stories about troops on the ground in Vietnam. It’s been recommended to me by Vietnam vet friends in the past, and this prompted me yesterday to add it to my Kindle list. But somehow, I doubt the school board appreciates the portrayal of authoritarian leaders in that one, either.

    1. The Things They Carried is a good read. definitely a good add to the list.

  20. The five books will be replaced by 4 editions of Moby Dick and Casino by Nicholas Pileggi.

  21. 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.

    Which, ironically, is what makes it so controversial – because no one except the people making ‘lists of quintessential books of the 20th century’ think it is so.

  22. The Mat-Su School Board evidently doesn’t understand the purpose of a school.

    What do you think the purpose of public school is?

    Hint: Its never, since long before the birth of anyone at Reason or who comments here, been about teaching you to think.

  23. It’s like banning Huckleberry Finn because of all the uses of the n-word without actually reading the book to understand what it says about racism and the attitudes of people.

    Why do we have students read these dry old tomes? Because we’re not picking out the dime-store trash of the historical record, we’re picking some of the most insightful and impactful written classics. And they’re helpful because they capture the attitudes of people alive during those periods of history.

    I’m sure they’ll be banning Hamlet pretty soon. It contains lots of references to the occult with the presence of ghosts, some very grim messages about life and death and the promotion of suicide, plus there’s some very crude sexual innuendos and plenty of insensitive treatment of women. I think it’s too controversial to ask high schoolers to deal with such outrageous topics.

    1. “I’m sure they’ll be banning Hamlet pretty soon.”

      Bowlder did one better. He re-wrote Shakespeare removing the parts he found offensive. Thomas Jefferson did much the same with the bible.

      I think part of the problem here is to use the English lessons to teach about ‘how things were back then.’ We can’t really avoid controversial or distasteful subject matter, but I think English class would be more true to its subject if it were to concentrate more on vocabulary building, rhetoric and its devices, mechanics of poetry, etc, aimed at making the student a more effective communicator, rather than mere storytelling, which obviously also has its place.

  24. The stupidity over what to assign pupils forced by law to attend schools funded by money forcibly taken from property owners is well pointed up by this totally unnecessary controversy.
    Let parents have their children’s teachers (whom they pay for this) assign books chosen by the parents (or by teachers chosen by their parents).

  25. Different things offend different people. Since someone is always bound to be offended by something, let’s ban everything. No movies, books, TV, music.

    This will ensure that no one is offended. It’s for our own good.

    1. Well even if it is not for our own good – think of the children!

  26. Except they didn’t ban any of these books:

    https://craigmedred.news/2020/04/27/banning-books/

    “The books in question weren’t banned from schools, and there is no plan to do so…What the Board did do was remove the books from the “High School English Election Curriculum.” That might have been a bad decision – public entities make bad decisions all the time – but nobody was planning a pyre in Palmer, a bonfire in Big Lake, or a war on literature in Wasilla…And what curriculum would that be? Well, according to the teachers who explained things to the Board, it would be the curriculum for an English elective for juniors and seniors that would only be offered if there were enough juniors and seniors interested in the class…You can only feel sorry for someone who can’t tell the difference between books being banned from schools and books being removed from a reading list for a class that might or might not happen.”

  27. Agree the issue isn’t book burning. It is, however, censorship—a ban on the use of these specific books in a class whose purpose is to teach more complex ideas to more advanced students.

    In general, an Advanced English Literature class will include principles and methods of expressing moral ambiguities in literature (and, yes, encouraging thoughtful reflection on the moral ambiguities themselves). But, because the particular moral ambiguities in several books particularly suited to the topic are uncomfortable or offensive to the authoritarian leadership of the school district, they are, well, banned.

    So consider, for “a class that might or might not happen” based on student interest, will the action of ensuring prospective students know it’s a class in Advanced Bland English Literature increase, or decrease demand, and thus the odds of it taking place?

    So no book bonfires, but authoritarian censorship nonetheless and therefore to be resisted whenever possible.

  28. Casting the use of a book that’s in the America literary canon and near 100 years old as a counseling/philosophy of education issue is misguided at best, but much more likely an intentional misdirection. It’s just another example of the intentional obfuscation from bad faith operators that has overtaken American discourse.
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