Idaho

Curriculum Disputes, Reading Lists, and More Books by White Guys

Last Monday, a committee in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho recommended Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck be removed from the ninth grade general reading list to the small-group reading list.

The four committee members who feel the book should be removed from required reading shared their reasons with the Spokesman-Review:

  • Profanity: use of words like “bastard” and “God damn.” One committee member counted the profanities–102 profanities in its 110 pages.
  • Negativity and darkness: committee members found the story too “negative.” This next bit I’ll just quote directly from the article:

The book is of high literary quality, committee member Eugene Marano said, and he’s not so bothered by the coarse language. But the gloomy tone gives him pause, especially the bleak ending.

“I thought it was too dark for ninth-graders,” said Marano, a retired Kootenai County magistrate judge. “It needs to be in a small group to explain away the dark part of it.”

The Boise Weekly did a little digging and found the approved books for large and small group instruction for ninth grade in the Coeur d’Alene school district:

Current approved titles on the ninth grade whole group reading list are “Romeo & Juliet,” Animal Farm, Great Expectations and The House on Mango Street. Titles on the small group reading list include Go Ask Alice, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and The Odyssey.

Here’s what I have gleaned from this reporting, the above books that have not been challenged, and my knowledge of those texts: The Great Depression is too bleak, but teen suicide (as told by Shakespeare) and teen drug use and suicide (as told by an LDS Idaho writer in the form of a cautionary tale) are not. While small group novels have more challenging or intense content, the committee appears to be under the assumption that this pedagogical strategy is used to “explain away” the bleakness, negativity, or challenging nature of the text, rather than to dig into, discuss, analyze, synthesize, or reflect upon it. The ad hoc committee and school board need to have this point clarified. Immediately.

That covers my response to the coverage thus far. Now I get to the heart of the matter.

While I appreciate the articles by both the Spokesman-Review and the Boise-Weekly, I am not satisfied by the depth of their research. In thirty minutes of searching, I downloaded Coeur d’Alene School District’s Approved Novels list for grades 6 through 9. The district website says the document was last updated December 2014; the document itself states September 2013. I went through each title for each grade; as an educator, a member of the greater Idaho community, and a part of the growing consciousness of how a “safe” canon has diminished our ability to engage in critical thought, I am very troubled by what I find, both in terms of the content itself, and how our framing of it limits students.

Banning and challenging books is anachronistic and counter-productive. Last year, the Meridian, Idaho, school district banned the book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. The American Library Association named it the most-challenged book of 2014. The ALA “condemns censorship and works to ensure free access to information,” and “promotes the freedom to read.” Banning books does not protect students from ideas. Choosing to challenge a novel, when students have access to the the entire world of information in their pockets, demonstrates an archaic understanding of the purpose of education and the sharing of information. Finally, after the ban of the Alexie novel, interest in the book increased, and instead of it simply appearing on a supplemental reading list, every student was provided a copy of the novel. For free.

The committee does not understand ninth grade students. Fourteen-year-old students, even in conservative northern Idaho, have heard the words “bastard” and “damn.” They have heard the Lord’s name taken in vain. They have used those words, and worse. Reading them, in a piece of literature meant to reflect the experiences of migrant workers during the Great Depression, will not scandalize them. Furthermore, if eighth-grade students can handle the required text of The Diary of Anne Frank, which also has a bleak ending, they can handle Of Mice and Men, provided they have a competent teacher who guides them through the process–which they do. It was the Great Depression; it did not have a happy ending for the nation’s poor, and hiding that is insulting to the history and to the students. Committee: trust your teachers, trust your students.

In 2015, the book list is populated with predominantly white male authors. This begs the question: why are we arguing about a book written by a dead white guy? Of the approved titles on the Whole Group Reading List (and I am including the required titles and choice lists), almost 70% are written by white men. Several of them are repeats of the same author; there are two (TWO!) other novels by Steinbeck on the approved novels list. I’m going to break this down some more, because this is the most problematic piece of the issue.

  • In grade 9, a teacher may elect for the class to read The Miracle Worker, which is based on Helen Keller’s autobiography, but is not the autobiography itself. As an educator of the Deaf, I cannot tell you how many times I have encountered individuals whose entire concept of deafness is based not on Keller’s words, but on someone else’s adaptation of them. This is part of a pattern of books that address the topic of disability that are written by able-bodied authors: Freak the Mighty (grade 7), and two books from the grade 9 Small Group list, Stoner and Spaz, and Stuck in Neutral.
  • The Grade 11 list has left me irate. In the entire canon of American Literature, out of the 11 titles selected for the approved novel list, there is one novel written by a woman. ONE. Where are women like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Harriet Beacher Stowe, Willa Cather, or Louisa May Alcott?
  • Again, Grade 11: Eleven novels, two Authors of Color. Frederick Douglass’ autobiography is on the list, as well as Thousand Pieces of Gold, by Ruthanne Lum McCunn. The selection of two biographies on a list that also features classic works of fiction is an easy way to make sure the list pays lip service to diversity without tackling broader systems of inequality. This is unacceptable. On the entire 6th-12th grade list of 73 titles, there are only seven titles written by People of Color: 3 African-American, 1 African, 1 Latina, 1 Chinese-American, 1 Japanese-American. There are other novels that address topics of racism, segregation, and diversity, but these are written by white authors who do not represent the Black (or Latino, or Native) literary community. As I was working on this blog post, a video surfaced of the principal of TNT Academy in Georgia making racially charged remarks at graduation. A Twitter conversation turned toward colorblind pedagogy, and everything clicked about this entire book challenge (tweet embedded with permission):

This is what a legacy of systemic silencing and supremacy looks like. This is where it starts: narrowing our students’ access to books based on our archaic definitions of whether a novel is “a quality story [or] a page turner.” Arguing about the word “bastard” and whether the Great Depression is too depressing, instead of challenging our state’s entrenched biases. The person who successfully challenged Alexie’s novel last spring claimed a semi-autobiographical novel written by a Native American that described his experiences of racism when he left the reservation was, by definition, a racist novel. We are seeing the damage wrought by decades of failing to engage students with literary voices outside the approved canon.

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A Tale of Two Idahos… actually, it’s the same Idaho

Content note: gun violence, police violence, police-involved shooting, intersection of race and disability, accidental shooting, human death, animal death

Idaho has made a lot of headlines in the last few years.

During the 2014 legislative session, Idaho lawmakers made us the 7th state to approve conceal carry on college campuses, despite vocal opposition from nearly every stakeholder, and the failure of the same bill in 2011.

In September 2014 the first month of the first semester the law was in effect, a professor shot himself in the foot while teaching on one of our university campuses.

In December, a two-year-old child accidentally shot and killed his mother with a concealed handgun while rummaging in her purse.

I’m starting to see a pattern here.


On Friday, The Guardian ran a lengthy piece on two officer-involved shootings in northern Idaho. From the article:

The first victim was Jeanetta Riley, a troubled 35-year-old pregnant woman, shot dead by police as she brandished a knife outside a hospital in the town of Sandpoint. Her death barely ruffled the tight-knit rural community, which mostly backed the officers, who were cleared of wrongdoing before the case was closed.

The second shooting, in nearby Coeur d’Alene, sparked uproar. There were rallies, protests, sinister threats against the officer responsible, and a viral campaign that spread well beyond the town and drew an apology from the mayor. The killing was ruled unjustified, and the police chief introduced new training for his officers.

The victim of the second shooting: a dog named Arfee.

I live in southern Idaho, a nine-hour drive from Coeur d’Alene. Just 10 minutes away in the town of Filer, an officer shot a dog last year. There was outrage then, too. When the officer was returned to duty, outraged citizens started a petition to get the mayor recalled. Nothing came of the petitions, but they added an eight-hour training course for dealing with dogs.

In the comments surrounding the stories I linked above, a pattern emerges: It was the professor’s fault he got shot–he must have been carrying his gun unsafely. It was the mother’s fault she got shot; her gun was stored in her purse unsafely. Jeanetta Riley deserved to get shot–she was on drugs and she didn’t comply with police directives.

In other responses, to the other stories, a second pattern, another Idaho, emerges: OH MY GOD WHO WOULD SHOOT A DOG?!

These are the comments and messages and conversations I’ve heard over the past seven years: If you respect guns, you’ll be fine. If you raise your kids around guns, they will have a healthy respect of guns. And, likewise, if you listen to the police, you’ll be fine. Everything boils down to this: Just follow the rules, and you won’t get hurt. It follows that if you get hurt (or killed) then you did not follow the rules, the blame falls squarely on you, and you can expect little sympathy. The fact that dogs elicit more sympathy, empathy, and outrage than human lives should tell us that something is wrong with that lens. The fact that Arfee’s owner got an $80,000 settlement, while Jeanetta Riley’s family have not even received an apology, should tell us something is wrong with our system.

The incidents with the dog in Coeur d’Alene and the dog in Filer each prompted targeted training for officers handling potentially aggressive dogs. That is reasonable training to have. The officers also need training in recognizing and deescalating a crisis situation with a person with a mental illness or psychiatric disability. Their department provides it, but neither officer had taken it. That is necessary training to have.

I would like to submit another story for your consideration: In December, police in Twin Falls, Idaho, arrested Randy Scott Hill after a 25-hour standoff, during which time Hill brandished a knife, yelled at police, exited and reentered his home, threw the negotiation phone back at the police, waved a hammer around. No one was injured or killed.

Hill, a white male, survived his encounter with police after they put in 25 hours of patient attempts. Riley, a Native American female, died as a result of her encounter with police after only 15 seconds. Both reportedly have a history of disability and violent behavior; for Riley, the intersection of race with psychiatric disability, as has been well-documented by others, proved fatal.

This is the Cult of Compliance. And here, in Idaho, all of that is wrapped up in the added layer of gun saturation.

Last month, two local schools (a mile from my house) were placed on a three-hour lockdown because a man was walking down the street with two firearms. Police inquiry revealed he was simply doing just that: walking down the street with two firearms. He was within his legal rights to do so. A commenter on the newspaper’s website wrote, I support open carry and I support this kind of response from our educational and law enforcement leaders. This is why Idaho is great. 

The day after the Veronica Rutledge was killed by her 2-year-old in Wal-Mart, the Washington Post wrote a piece of Idaho conceal carry apologetics to indicate that this was so much about guns that it wasn’t about guns:

“In Idaho, we don’t have to worry about a lot of crime and things like that,” [Sandow] said. “And to see someone with a gun isn’t bizarre. [Veronica] wasn’t carrying a gun because she felt unsafe. She was carrying a gun because she was raised around guns. This was just a horrible accident.”

This is the Cult of Compliance: the energy and logical acrobatics required to maintain status quo.