Thought You'd Never Ask

Just mouthing off -- because I can.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Great Literature in the Public Schools, Part 1

Anybody who doesn't have children in the public schools of America right now probably isn't aware that there is a low-level, under-the-radar "cold war" going on there between some parents and some schools regarding what constitutes appropriate or desirable literature to be taught to young people and to be stocked on the shelves of the school libraries.

With my son now in 9th grade and my daughter in 4th, I've had my children in public schools for some years now, and I wasn't aware of this development until this past fall, when I was hit with a triple whammy.

The first third of the whammy came home with my son during his first week of honors literature. "Mom, here's the list of books we'll be reading this semester, and you need to buy me the first one by the end of this week."

I wasn't familiar with the book, but went promptly to fetch a copy of the paperback from the local bookstore. It was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, a contemporary novel published in 2003. The story of an autistic teenager in England dealing with the breakup of his parents' marriage, it seemed to be highly praised for the clever artfulness the author used in revealing the many-layered tale humorously yet realistically from the teenaged narrator's unique and quirky viewpoint. I could see why the teacher would want to assign a book with humor and a teenaged narrator, as appealing to the class. I started riffling through the book to get a feel for the writing, and in under 15 seconds encountered one of the nastier four-letter words you can use (the derogatory term for a woman). Despite growing up in the turbulent late-sixties and early seventies, I hadn't learned that one until I was in college. And frankly, I didn't see the need for my son to learn it now.

In a couple of minutes more I could see for myself that the novel was larded with profanity and the baldest four-letter words throughout. The opening scene of the boy discovering a neighbor's dog slaughtered by a “garden fork” still sticking out of him didn't put me in a better mood. What was the teacher thinking, I wondered, in assigning a book with language so over the top; language that was clearly outside the realm of civilized educational discourse and that, if used by a student or a teacher in the classroom (or anywhere at the school or on the bus), would be grounds for censure?

As odd timing would have it, I was then just due to attend the Open House at my son's high school, the parents' chance to meet their children's teachers.

"Maybe you should read a passage from the book at the Open House and ask what the deal is," my Dreamboat said dryly as I left the house. "Maybe the other parents would be interested in hearing that!"

But Open House clearly was not the forum for parental questions of this sort. We were shuffled from class to class, following our students' schedules, and given only 5 minutes in each class, that time filled entirely by each teacher handing out contact information and giving a very rushed presentation of what they planned to cover in their course. At the end of the evening's schedule we were cordially thanked and invited to leave by the administration, addressing the visiting parents over the P.A. system.

I knew I had no right to properly critique the book without reading the whole thing, which I soon did. It was a well-written novel, with a unique and amusing, funny/sad viewpoint. I enjoyed it as a work of art, and as an adult, was not shocked by the language (though it was extreme, the language was meant to serve as a reflection of the narrator's lower-class environment --the old verisimilitude argument). But I did remain shocked that a teacher would assign this particular novel, with this amount and level of profanity, to be read by ninth graders in a literature class. Why? Certainly there were equally amusing, appealing novels my son could read (as if this were the primary qualifier for a literature study!)--and indisputably there were greater novels, and more time-tested ones, that my son could be devoting his guided attention to.

I reluctantly decided to hand the book over to my son, admitting to him that I was not particularly thrilled about the profanity included in it—that, in fact, I was surprised and questioned why a teacher would assign a book containing such language in a literature course for teenagers. He assured me that he was already familiar with and was unaffected by all of the four-letter words (a sad commentary on the level of civility in the halls and on the buses of the current-day public school system). I really would have rather he didn’t read it, but I felt stuck: I didn’t think the first week of high school was a good time to start a hassle with my son’s instructor (who I didn’t know), or to possibly have my son singled out as a problem case and branded in front of his class.

Instead I contacted the teacher by email, and therein wondered politely and deferentially, one English major and literature lover to another, and at the self-avowed risk of sounding like a dinosaur, why she chose to assign this particular book with its extremely graphic language, and how she planned to handle the discussion of the profanity in class.

I was by that time even more disturbed to have learned that the author had originally written the book exclusively for adults. Formerly a writer of children’s books, Haddon had intended this one to be his breakthrough adult novel. According to an interview at, “[h]e was surprised, he said, when he gave the manuscript to his agent and she said, ‘Let's try it with both adult and children's publishers and see what happens.’”

Well, it was obvious what happened: double the market exposure, and double the sales, or even more than double the sales, if the book was now being assigned to young people in schools by teachers like this one.

I have been teaching my children to turn away from nonscrupulous marketers eager to exploit them for years--including those who hawk sugary cereals, watery juices, sleazy and dangerous clothing and toys, inferior or raunchy books (notoriously, the stupid Goosebumps! books), trendy but worthless movies, crummy music, and creepy websites. I have been protecting my children from untoward, unhealthy, and obnoxious influences in all the good-parent-approved ways, with television channels blocked, and internet filtering software on our computers. I have taken my job seriously in monitoring and guiding them as they grew, in their interests, friends, and activities, providing what I thought were positive alternatives to replace anything that might catch their passing fancy that I wasn’t sure was good for them.

In short, I have always urged them to pay attention to what they choose to put into their stomachs, their hearts, and their minds, since what you pay attention to grows, and what you neglect withers, and what you give your precious time and attention to affects you in profound ways. I have always encouraged them to challenge themselves, to make the effort to learn and grow, to reach and take the upper, higher road, saying that it is all too easy to take the low road and fall down at any time, but it is so much harder to recover from a mistake or bad habits than it is to start out and stay on the right track.

That is why, for example, as role-modeling parents, we don’t use profanity in our house, because as I’ve always told the kids, it brands you in the public ear where you will be judged as a certain kind of person, and it indicates a lack of imagination, for there is always a better way to express what you really mean than a common expletive.

And I have always told my children to enjoy and savor each year of being a child, and not to push the envelope toward adulthood any faster than they absolutely need to, since adulthood is very, very, very long, and childhood is fleeting and each year should be savored, for every year of childhood and teenhood is unique and special and won't come again.

Now I felt forced by my son’s school to hand over to him a book that, as a parent, I’d not have him read, at least not now. And I suspected that if the teacher had honestly advised the parents of what was in the book, I wouldn’t be alone in my feelings. In fact, was I? Did other parents object, or even look through the book themselves?

To make a long story short, the teacher telephoned me and we had a long, half-hour dialog. In the end, neither of us seemed to change the other’s mind or convince each other of our own viewpoints. She could not see the irony of providing 14-year-olds with a book containing language outlawed by the school’s own student handbook. I thought it, but I dared not point out that if an adult outside of a classroom or on the internet offered such material to my child, I would not be too far off in questioning motives or notifying the authorities. She asked if I also objected to the language and/or violence in Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird, two other novels on the required reading list. To be honest, I’d never read them, so I could not say, though it seems the latter two have stood some test of time in qualifying as literature worthy of classroom study. I’m guessing neither of them include the word “c***” either, but since I didn’t know for sure, she had me there.

She asked me twice if I objected to the book on religious grounds, which seemed odd. Perhaps that is the only allowable grounds for protest for families who object to a text. I could not seem to make her understand my point that you don’t have to be religious to be offended by four-letter words. To her the book was a valid inclusion in the curriculum because of its accessibility and relevance to the children she taught. Something to get them excited about the class and exploring texts before they turned to “less accessible” novels. (The old Goosebumps! theory again--"anything, just so they read!" --here used for high school Honors Literature students!) She assured me that as she would lead the class in studying the book’s tone, diction, plot, etc. she would be pointing out the bad language as revealing how badly the adults were acting, and in no way would she condone its use.

In the end, my son enjoyed the book, drawn in by the references to Star Trek and Dr. Who. He enjoyed the other books, the teacher, and the course, and earned an A. He and I had a few offhand conversations about the book and vulgarity, violence, and sexuality at school and in the media.

And we began watching old re-run episodes of “Law and Order” (rated TV-14) on TV in the evenings together. It was clear to me that my son was mature and experienced enough to view profanity as a vernacular (and he had clearly internalized our family’s values of using appropriate language in the right settings and at the right times). Now I had to face that despite how we lived our lives at home, in life, literature and the media, including at school, he was going to be more exposed to "adult" language and today's "adult" topics, perforce including a more detailed awareness of varieties of violence, evil, profanity, and gross stuff. Since the teacher had taken upon herself the right to "push the envelope" at school for our son, I decided to take the initiative to sit down with him as another adult guide, a parental guide, to some of the meaner aspects of the world.

I must admit, it is quite different watching "Law and Order" as a visual aid for helping your child lose some of his innocence than it is watching by yourself as dramatic entertainment. Though it also teaches about the law enforcement and legal systems (my son now knows what a "Twinkie defense" is, for example), "Perry Mason" it is not. Thankfully the series is not excessively gory, but the topics and the references in some of the episodes watched with my son made this mom squirm at times. Luckily Detectives Lennie Briscoe and Ed Green, and Prosecutors Jack McCoy, Claire Kincaid, and Abbie Carmichael are good people to have on our side.

I wonder if Motherhood has always been like this.

What I learned from all of this:

  • Until now it had never occurred to me to worry about or question this, but it is not exactly clear how my public school teachers, academic departments, and/or the school board choose which texts to assign in classes. I spent some time trying to determine this and it seems to be a very closed and secretive process with no parental input or overview either encouraged or allowed. The assigned texts are sprung on the parents with no real indication of what's in the books. It never occurred to me to worry before, but now I do.
  • A parent can request that a student be assigned a “parallel text” (substitute) for a given book in some cases, once the parent is notified of what text is assigned, but the consequences of this in any given situation for the student are not clear. In some cases no time is given for the parent to review the book in advance.
  • Some teachers or administrators evidently insist that a high school student is required to read a given text in order to be prepared for the AP (Advanced Placement) exams to attain college credit. Not true. At the AP website (see Course Descriptions) it states clearly "There is no recommended or required reading list for the AP English Language and Composition course." and "There is no recommended or required reading list for the AP English Literature and Composition course." The website does offer long lists of authors that teachers may choose from or they "may choose others of comparable quality and complexity." A student may well fill four years of profitable study of the works of Shakespeare, Browning, Blake, Poe, Pope, and all the other classics without being required (by the AP exam, anyway) to stray into contemporary authors of questionable worth.
  • Some of the books being assigned in literature classes by the public schools in the U.S. are clearly outrageously age-inappropriate, inflammatory, and dreadful, and parents are beginning to take to the internet to network for better standards in their schools:
I had no idea. Further Google searches will reveal the current war of values going on, with the parents often branded not just as prim or ignorant old fogeys but as religious bigots, bad guys, book-burners, or censors, for wanting their children to be taught classic and/or traditional literature instead of trendy, trashy, dumbed-down contemporary texts. Goosebumps! is the least of it. As taxpayers expecting our children to receive the quality education we're being billed for, we certainly have the right to be respectfully heard on this.

For more reading:

Here's an essay discussing this issue from the teachers' viewpoint:

To be continued.... Part 2: "Mommy, this is a really weird book with bad words in it."


  • At Friday, February 03, 2006 3:51:00 PM, Anonymous Margaret K. in Canada said…

    Hi, I just read part of your post "Great literature in the Public Schools Part I" and thought I'd just let you know that I thought it was really interesting. When I have more time, I will come back and read some more! ;) I thought your link to "a better way to express what you really mean" was hilarious! Thanks for that. :)

  • At Saturday, February 04, 2006 8:18:00 AM, Blogger Zabrina said…

    You're welcome. It made me laugh too. Thanks for your kind comments.

  • At Friday, July 18, 2008 1:00:00 PM, Blogger Rosemary said…

    As a part-time "library lady" in a small private school whose job it is to order books for our elementary and middle school, I have struggled to obtain excellent literature and try to include contemporary books. A recent book "Phoenix Rising" was added to our middle school reading list coming with high praise from ALA, etc. That addition followed with a call from an irate parent pointing out that her son informed her of "lots of bad words." I then read the book...a thought provoking story. Now what? One parent suggested crossing out the 6 words. Others, said to forget it. After googling on the Internet, your "Great literature..." came to my attention. I am a former certified 2nd grade, not officially a librarian. So...what do I do now? Thank you for your post, Part I. It helped. Now where is part II? By the way, I agree about Goosebumps. Yuk!

  • At Sunday, August 03, 2008 11:49:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Thanks very much for your comment.

    Part 2 is here:

    Part 3 is here:

    What do you do now, you ask? Just a couple of suggestions:

    Maybe learn more about the controversy in the public schools and libraries concerning content being pushed by teachers and librarians onto children whose parents believe it to be age-inappropriate. And become more aware of the agenda of the ALA and its role in this, and become more cautious about accepting ALA recommendations at face value. Study all sides of the issue so you can confidently defend your choice of books, including to those involved and informed parents who pay your salary.

    Do you feel excellent literature requires profanity? If so, how will you justify your stance to the parents who disagree?


  • At Thursday, July 28, 2011 4:07:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Interesting post. What suggestions would you give your son's teacher for novels to include in the 9th grade curriculum? Also, what do you envision the best way might be for teachers to choose novels to include in the curriculum? Finally, would you oppose Haddon's book if it were included on a suggested reading list for 9th graders-- as an independent reading choice. Appreciate your blog!

  • At Friday, July 29, 2011 9:32:00 AM, Blogger Zabrina said…

    Here are my answers to your questions, easiest first:

    No, I would not oppose Haddon's book as an optional selection on a suggested reading list. I opposed it being required for all children, especially mine. I am grateful when teachers offer a choice, including a classic text. This parent does indeed evaluate all of the selections and help my children choose the ones we feel will best benefit them. They can always read the other books on their own time or later in life. A teacher's recommendation is a powerful thing that sticks in your brain.

    What suggestions for novels would I give a teacher of a 9th-grade honors lit course? I will preface my suggestions here by saying I very much doubt my suggestions or requests would have any sway whatsoever with the teacher and/or the committee that sets up the curriculum reading lists (for I have tried that venue of working with the teachers repeatedly over several years and now see that it is a futile exercise; such suggestions from an individual parent are politely stonewalled and ultimately ignored). The English department faculty presents a united front, as they are all seemingly versed in how to respond to this (which they view as "challenges") by the ALA (you can read more about this on the internet):

    Besides, the suggestions I would offer for 9th grade reading would appear laughable to teachers who don't seem to expect much from their students, and who teach from a contemporary, leftist viewpoint, as most English teachers do these days. Plus, I fear that my suggestions would require much more work on the part of the teachers--or perhaps the teachers themselves are not even familiar with them (or up to the task of teaching them). Otherwise, why aren't teachers still teaching students these classics?--

    "The Persians and Seven Against Thebes" by Aeschylus

    "Pygmalion and Androcles and the Lion" by G.B. Shaw

    "Ben Hur" by Lew Wallace

    "Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans" by John S. White, ed.

    "Antigone" by Sophocles

    "MacBeth," "Merchant of Venice," "Romeo and Juliet," "Julius Caesar" by Shakespeare

    "Tale of Two Cities," or "Great Expectations" by Dickens

    "The Odyssey"

    "Cyrano de Bergerac"

    "The Once and Future King"

    The list can go on and on. How I would help teachers choose novels to include in the curriculum (your other question) would be to research what rigorous and successful private schools and homeschools are using. Two examples easily found:

    Hillsdale Academy's Humane Letters curriculum (scroll down for 9th grade details):

    Classical Christian Education Support Loop/1000 Good Books List:

    So, public schools could omit the overtly religious books if they must, and still offer a rigorous and rewarding curriculum. Why don't they? Why are they turning away from the classic education that benefited previous generations to serve a dumbed-down mishmash that's failing our kids these days?

    It almost makes you think the teachers and administrators are doing it on purpose.

  • At Saturday, December 07, 2013 10:47:00 PM, Blogger Jessica said…

    Before I say this, I just want you know I'm not trying to insinuate that your concerns are wrong or invalid because it seems to me like it's an issue you've thoroughly considered. I'm just offering a viewpoint based on my personal experiences because it's relevant.

    I read this book when I was 14 for an English class. The class wasn't English literature, it was creative writing, but it was still required reading for the course. I haven't read it since then (this was in 2004) , but this is what I remember about the reading experience:

    -I remember it was funny.
    -I remember it was interesting to read a book through the perspective of a child with autism. In college I become very good friends very quickly with a man who had Aspergers and for a long time I was his best friend at school. I wonder how much reading through that perspective allowed me to be able to relate to him and develop such a close relationship.
    -I remember how the main character was ostracized, accused and subsequently isolated because of his disorder. This aspect of the book spoke strongly as these were things I felt happened to me too, even if I wasn't autistic. The book helped me feel less alone.

    What I don't remember about the book was the foul language. I don't remember that at all. I'm not saying it wasn't there, because it could've been on every page. What I'm saying is that the cursing in the book made such a small impact on me that I don't even remember it being there. So maybe high schoolers aren't as impressionable as adults like to think. Maybe they're able to acknowledge that language is inappropriate and look past it for what is good in the novel. Maybe that language doesn't have the power we like to think it does.


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