Dropped assignment raises questions about book banning

Aug 18, 2015

American Library Association

By Amanda Claire Curcio

A principal’s ad-hoc decision to pull a summer reading assignment after a handful of parents slammed the book’s content and language is calling into question Leon County Schools’ censorship bylaws.

The book – an award-winning and critically acclaimed 2003 British novel, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” by Mark Haddon – is narrated by a 15-year-old mathematical whiz with cognitive disabilities, similar to autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, who relays what he sees and hears in an almost emotionless way, including when adults around him curse or doubt the existence of God.

Critics of the decision say that dropping the assignment without going through a committee review process violates district bylaws and sets a troubling precedent.

“This case is very startling. A handful of parents are making choices for every other parent in that school,” said Sarah Hoffman, a National Coalition Against Censorship program manager. “There is a reason policies are in place – to protect educators and the decisions they make.

“This seems like a knee-jerk reaction,” she added.


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41 comments on “Dropped assignment raises questions about book banning

  • We all know that some books were better left unwritten, Mein Kampf springs to mind. But censorship and its bigoted big brother: book burning is the action of paranoid authoritarianism. More than that it is a condescending critical approach which assumes the reader in incapable of critical thinking. I’m glad I was actually able to plough through about 100 pages of Mein Kampf before making the critical decision to return it to the library. Perhaps it lost something in translation but to this day it remains one of only three books that I did not complete reading. Critically, it seemed as though it was written by a self-important sixth former who thinks he’s clever but is pitifully ignorant (rather like a spottier, nose-picking, sparsely facially-haired version of Rik from the Young Ones).

    The other thing about censorship particularly for the young is that it is counter-productive. The best way to stop kids doing what you don’t want them to do is to encourage it



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  • Stephen,

    A fair point which forces me to reconsider my statement. I see where you are coming from and in terms of freedom of thought and expression I can’t justify it.
    But let me have a go anyway. We don’t live in an ideal world but we live in an evolving one where life is still a struggle for survival in which the fittest triumph. Hitler was not content to leave that struggle to natural sources and Mein Kampf contributed to several million “unfit” specimens of humanity not surviving. But then nor did Hitler who in the process of his own destruction destroyed his own country. Wars are rarely fought to the death, when defeat is inevitable surrender terms are sought, but not by Hitler. If it is possible to enter the moral maze of travelling back in time and assassinating Hitler before he gained power, many would take that option. Is that worse than simply wishing his book had never been written? (though of course I accept that he might have achieved what he achieved without the book)

    I think it could be argued that the world would be a better place if the Bible and Koran had not been written. But setting these metaphysical aspects aside I suppose a stronger argument is that badly written, turgid stuff is a better target?
    Ultimately, you must be right because we are not omniscient so cannot ever know the long term consequences of any text for humanity or even if that is a valid concern?



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  • The book – an award-winning and critically acclaimed 2003 British novel, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” by Mark Haddon – is narrated by a 15-year-old mathematical whiz with cognitive disabilities,

    I read that book! My girl friend at the time was borderline autistic herself and she really loved it and encouraged me to read it. I thought it was a great book, very entertaining and interesting.



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  • From this happening I get two things:

    1) there are parents in America with way too much free time for their own good.

    2) someone should start a fundraiser to buy a spine to that principal.



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  • Cognitively, I don’t know that either.

    Viscerally, however, I only have to ponder the fact that Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Bill O’Reilly all have written books and I suddenly feel intensely saddened for the innocent trees that had their lives cut short.



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  • We Americans remember when Mark Twain’s classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, was banned from school districts and libraries during the 70s and 80s by black civil rights activists and “progressive” white allies for alleged racism in general and the use of the “n” word in particular. The reaction to literary works (or to any text in the humanities and social sciences) can be deeply personal. Once politicized, a vocal minority can exercise censorship power over any material that aggravates specific grievances plausibly grounded in “community standards,” cherished religious beliefs or in claims of victimization or political correctness. A consensus of the best and the brightest in academia operating as “objectively and fairly” as possible without personal bias or political agenda should probably serve as the selective authority for assigned reading. There is a lot to parse in this recommendation. Bias will always be intrinsic to human judgement. At the end of the day the inexhaustible voice will always be heard in the room: “WHO ARE YOU TO DECIDE?”



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  • If year 11s can’t handle the language of everyday vernacular English, debates about god, the meaning of life and everything, then they shouldn’t be doing literature. But then, it’s not the kids who can’t handle it, it’s the parents.



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  • I loved that book and recommend it to anyone. It helped me understand, more, what world my nephew lives in and for a short period I joined him because of the way this book is written.

    My wife and I also went to see it on stage at the Apollo Theatre in London the Saturday before the ceiling collapsed. We must have been blessed to have received the tickets for the week before……..All those sinners the week after got what they deserved ))



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  • Did Ms Gee never get a playground duty as a teacher? I don’t think American schools are going to be that different to English schools. The break time language in the schools I worked in would make “the curious case”
    Seem positively prurient. I would also agree that ‘banning’ the book will make every kid in the school want to read it. Busy body shoots self in foot!



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  • The nub of this parental attempt at censorship is that actually they would like all other books apart from the Bible banned, but realise they have no chance of succeeding so they go for the easier targets, hope for a bit of success and proceed from there.

    I wonder how they feel about instruction manuals and cookery books?



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  • I read some excerpts from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon and like Roedy enjoyed the literary and story telling power of the work. Nothing wrong about assigned reading here.

    Like Bonnie who cites the progressive Tipper Gore and her “warning label” campaign against offensive rap lyrics, we’re reminded that we all have buttons that can be pushed to trigger censorship. When I first heard some of this stuff laced with obscenities , misogyny; advocating drug use and drug dealing; celebrating violence against women and police -gun play in homicidal gang subculture, warning labels seemed required. Today rap lyrics are critically acclaimed as urban poetry. Climbing the charts to the summit of pop music in pop youth culture, the question of censorship was ridiculous. With few exceptions, every kid had access to rap music. Every kid listened with relish. Though I suppose rap lyrics are still considered age-inappropriate in high school English classes, I know they are taught as literature and sociology at the college level.

    The open question is what literary texts do we, as individuals and as members of fragmented communities with common or divergent purposes, consider worthy of exclusion and inclusion based on age-appropriate critical criteria? The answer was easier in past decades embedded in homogeneous Eurocentric culture where pedagogues could choose from a now-defunct literary canon -the 100 greatest books category if you will. Today with the emergence of millions of new promising titles since the 1950s and more recently since 2000 on a global scale seeking a voice for a multitude of diverse heretofore marginalized ethnic and racial minorities, immigrants, international histories, societies and cultures, and last but not least the LGBT community… Well, the question is no longer an easy one.



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  • bonnie,

    Also I notice that my song list has a warning of “explicit” on the song All Mixed Up by the band 311. None of my songs by Zappa have a warning, which is strange, but maybe I just have his milder ones. 🙂



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  • Hi Phil,

    I’m tempted to just claim Godwin’s Law rules.

    Okay, I’ll play nicely.

    in terms of freedom of thought and expression I can’t justify it.

    That’s a good start.

    We don’t live in an ideal world …

    Definitely continuing down a positive path here Phil. May I add that we may never live in an ideal world? Like reducing crime or poverty, of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try – principles are at stake here.

    … we live in an evolving [World] where life is still a struggle for survival in which the fittest triumph.

    That seems a highly contentious assertion (or two) to me, from a number of angles. But I’ll take in the spirit you appear to intend – developing your theme of a World that’s less than ideal.

    Hitler [and] Mein Kampf contributed to several million “unfit” specimens of humanity not surviving. [etc.]

    If it is possible to … [travel] back in time and [assassinate] Hitler before he gained power, many would take that option.

    Yes, very Utilitarian – the lesser of two evils and all that.

    Is that worse than simply wishing his book had never been written?

    I don’t know. Such an act is hypothetical and an interesting thought experiment. I do know that the wish is Father to the deed and that the Nazis burned books. Or, to put that another way: Repression is an ever present, real-life, danger and it begins with ideas.

    In the past this was bad enough. Add to that the spectacularly powerful means we now have of destroying ourselves.

    I think it could be argued that the world would be a better place if the Bible and Koran had not been written.

    No argument here. Bad ideas can flourish.

    I suppose a stronger argument is that badly written, turgid stuff is a better target?

    Targets are only aimed at where they can be seen, and the freedom exists to fire at will.

    Ultimately, you must be right because we are not omniscient so cannot ever know the long term consequences of any text …

    Thank you for making my arguments for me.

    Let’s start from there.

    We are not omniscient and this is the very foundation on which must build a principle – a rule we know must be defended at all costs, because the alternative is to surrender to ignorance, stupidity and criminality.

    All ideas must be free. This means free to say, see and hear – free to access, free to reuse and free to develop. Lest we forget; development means breaking down, questioning, researching, skepticism and thinking – then building anew.

    The people who need to understand this the most are the people who believe themselves to be in touch with an omniscient being – but we won’t explore that today. We need to quantify and define our principle first. We are all human, we all make mistakes.

    But what about those bad ideas? What about the Communists, Fascists and Agrarian Socialists? What about the Moon Landing Deniers and the Birthers?

    If we’re not omniscient enough to decide who can hear what, when and how – then we’re certainly not omniscient enough to decide, ahead of the social curve, which ideas are good and which are bad. Nor are we omniscient enough to know which historian is better at divining truth from our, necessarily and inescapably, incomplete heritage.

    Remember: Journalist = Historian. The only difference is the passage of time between events and report.

    Freedom of expression has to mean exactly that. Because the alternative is to trust someone – to give them extraordinary, perhaps even absolute, power. But power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    Can we stop bad ideas, like those in holy books, from spreading? No, because ideas are free.

    What we can achieve is extensive damage limitation. We can give people the education that empowers them to judge ideas.

    We can also defend free speech, to ensure that targets remain fair game.

    People, and organisations in particular, are frightened by personal empowerment and the freedom to criticise, and with good reason. One need look no further than the Catholic Church’s centuries-long crusades against the many books it didn’t like. Hitler was in ‘good’ company, when publishing turgid rubbish and burning other people’s ideas.

    Getting their ideas accepted, while censoring others, is the classic propagandist’s strategy. Thus are bad ideas turned into bad behaviour.

    Yes, freedom of speech allowed the original bad idea the oxygen of publicity. But, and it’s a big but, it’s only through freedom of speech that alternative ideas can be set against them, and that the ideas themselves can be studied and shown for what they are.

    Next time your tempted to visit a Creationist (or Muslim, or debate, or Cable News… ) site to enjoy the train wreck please just remember this:

    “Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.

    John Stewart Mill (St. Andrews University)

    Freedom of speech is under attack every day – use it, or lose it. Don’t just be a spectator – act.

    Peace.



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  • The open question is what… do we, as individuals and as members of fragmented communities with common or divergent purposes, consider worthy of exclusion and inclusion…

    The answer was easier in past decades…

    …the question is no longer an easy one.

    Indeed. In fact, these comments and conclusion apply as well to many other aspects of human society, over past centuries and millennia.

    And anyone who thinks it will get easier has a difficult case (or a horrible prediction about the future) to make.



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  • Apposite to this thread is Oscar Wilde’s quote: There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

    And “Curious Incident” has an excellent explanation of the Monty Hall problem. Normal human brains, even mathematical ones, have severe difficulty with conditional probability.



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  • True. Also, its been a while since I read the book in question here but from what I remember it wasn’t loaded with swear words or anything. There were a few swear words but no more, probably lots less, than what most kids hear in the real world or in TV and movies. The Curious Case was nothing like say Catcher in the Rye. Not that Catcher was really “dirty” either, actually one of my favorite South Park episodes is when the kids have to read Catcher in the Rye and are all excited because they hear it used to be banned but then they can’t believe why in the world anyone would ban it. But even compared to something fairly mild like Catcher; Curious Case was really mild. My guess is that the real thing that upset the parents was that the autistic child hero is a lot smarter than many of the adults in the book. Can’t be teaching kids dangerous lessons like that.



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  • Red Dog
    Aug 20, 2015 at 1:28 pm

    How ironic. When making a comment about censorship I was blocked by the new thought police software that now guards this site. That’s it, I’m done here.

    I would not take a software problem that seriously.
    I have had some posts blocked which have gone through after a bit of rephrasing which removed some trigger words.
    I usually copy long posts before clicking on “Post Comment”, so when something is blocked or disappears into the either, it can be revamped or re-posted. If it has simply been diverted for moderation, reposting produces a “duplicate comment” error message. If it has simply disappeared, a second try usually goes through.



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  • No, you haven’t. Your comment was not removed, either by a moderator or by the site software. If it had been, it would now be visible to us in a separate area, but we’ve just checked and there is nothing there. However, it does seem to happen occasionally that a comment just disappears after the user clicks on submit. We’ve had several reports of this happening, which we have passed to the technical team. We understand that this is frustrating, but unfortunately there is nothing more the moderators can do about it. Looking at the book banning thread now, though, we are seeing a post by you:

    True. Also, its been a while since I read the book in question here but from what I remember it wasn’t loaded with swear words or anything. There were a few swear words but no more, probably lots less, than what most kids hear in the real world or in TV and movies. The Curious Case was nothing like say Catcher in the Rye. Not that Catcher was really “dirty” either, actually one of my favorite South Park episodes is when the kids have to read Catcher in the Rye and are all excited because they hear it used to be banned but then they can’t believe why in the world anyone would ban it. But even compared to something fairly mild like Catcher; Curious Case was really mild. My guess is that the real thing that upset the parents was that the autistic child hero is a lot smarter than many of the adults in the book. Can’t be teaching kids dangerous lessons like that.

    Is this the comment you thought had been removed? If so, not only has it not been, but we’re frankly baffled how you could possibly think it had been judged to have breached the site rules.

    But even if it wasn’t, there really isn’t any need to assume the worst the moment something goes a bit wrong. Glitches do occasionally happen. And just so you know, the site does not use ‘thought police software’.

    The mods



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  • I also had a comment blocked a while ago on the topic of secular vs atheist as a label. I couldn’t get it to post so I waited a few days and rewrote it on another thread and it went up without a problem.

    Don’t worry about it.



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  • Sorry to hear that, Laurie. You can always let us know if you think that’s happened, and we’ll pass it on to the technical team to look into. Just email us at the moderatorteam address and tell us roughly what time you submitted the comment, and which thread it was on. The system puts posts aside pending moderator approval if they contain several links; but if you’re finding other posts disappear for no apparent reason (and they weren’t off topic / abusive, etc), do let us know. Or contact the technical team direct via the blue question mark at the bottom left of the screen.
    Thanks.
    The mods



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  • What was going through the principals’ mind? What would he do if someone else objected to the replacement book? And to its replacement? How many parents are necessary for a protest to succeed? Is there no course of appeal for the parents who approve?

    Regardless of the book’s merits, the correct response to a parent who objects to the book is not to deprive other parents’ children of the book.

    Perhaps they could have their child transfer from literature to something less subjective, like Evolutionary Science.



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  • ‘Tis easier to destroy than build.

    I imagine a memo to parents would read …of course, a student may read this book off campus, if they wish.

    Dirty deeds done with a CYA follow-up.



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  • What was going through the principals’ mind? Probably something like “not that lot again”, and a desire for the problem (vacuous yapping) to go away. It will never stop — there is will always be a minority demanding prohibitions and protection where precious ideas, especially ones rooted in religious ideas and values, are challenged. In a school setting, the issued challenged should just be discussed — it is an opportunity for learning, analysing, understanding and growing, so better to understand other concepts in the future. So yes, the principal probably does need a stronger spine and to stress the opportunity value of the ‘offensive’ material rather than giving in.



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  • 39
    joyce.beck.9081 says:

    There’s an elephant in the room. Compared with some of the stuff in the bible, The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time is mild. People doubting god? Ptchaw! Kids’ stuff! They should be reading about incest, mass-murder and slavery, and being told that it’s all fine!



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  • “I think it could be argued that the world would be a better place if the Bible and Koran had not been written. ”

    Sorry, I’m a flaming Atheist too, but I can’t agree with that statement.

    As bad as the bible is and as bad as Christianity has been, Christian philosophy is still miles ahead of the philosophies that built great empires before it. The Roman empire for example (because really, Christianity is a reaction to that empire’s philosophy), was built on a philosophy that the strong should crush the weak. Romans believed it was their divine right to plunder neighbouring territories wherever they could, and that they should raise their children to be strong and intentionally cruel. Babies that were deformed or crippled were typically left to die of exposure. There are lots of other examples to support this, but I want to keep this short. Other religions in Europe (at that time) and elsewhere demanded human sacrifice and cannibalism. Christianity, while bad – especially by today’s standards! – was an improvement over a great many other religions at that time.

    And while the Christians have their crusades and their witch trials and their inquisitions, those are better described as interludes of torture, massacre, and pogroms in a sea of constant torture, massacre, and pogrom within other cultures.

    True, we have morally grown to the point where the slavery, misogyny and rape espoused in the bible are now morally repugnant, but to say that we could have arrived here without the in-between stage of the middle ages is stupid. The perfect is still the enemy of the good, even today.



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  • “I know it’s not realistic to pretend bad words don’t exist, but it is
    my responsibility as a parent to make sure that my daughter knows what
    is right or wrong,” she (Sue Gee) added.

    I completely agree with that, though “right” and “wrong” are interpreted differently by different people. What is at issue here is the idea that she, and others like her, can determine what is “right or wrong” for the children of other parents.

    At the very most, the principal should have let the assignment stand, but exempted the requirement for any family who objected to its content.



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