Friday, March 02, 2007

Here We Go Again: Classic Books Are "Pornography," Teachers Reported to the FBI

Last week, we learned that some book critics take to stealing books they don't like from libraries. Today comes news out of Michigan that a group of social conservatives doesn't like the fact that local high school teachers have assigned students to read books by acclaimed authors like Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Kurt Vonnegut, as well as "The Freedom Writers Diary" by Erin Gruwell.

Their response? Report the schools to the FBI for violating "pornography" laws.
In a press release, Fyke called Morrison's book "The Bluest Eye" a "graphic child rape book" and said LOVE [the conservative activist group] is "encouraged that so far, both the U.S. attorney and the county prosecuting attorney are taking seriously our attempt to protect students from exposure to obscene material that is harmful to minors."
The problem?
However, in order to be legally defined as pornography, a book must be found to appeal only to readers' prurient interest in sex, and have no literary or educational value.
Even more disturbing to me, this matter is being taken "seriously" by recent Bush appointee U.S. Attorney Stephen J. Murphy III, who has, in fact, referred the matter to the FBI.

I've said before that I hate hyperbole, that the way to win debates is through reason and logic, not emotion and name-calling.

The problem is, these people seem to profoundly and deeply hate and fear literature, education, and even teenagers themselves. Accusing teachers of violating pornography laws for assigning these classic books? I refuse to dignify these absurd accusations by taking them seriously. It's an insult to all authors, teachers, and students when we are forced us to defend against charges such as these.

So I'm revising my opinion. Yes, I still believe in reason and logic when discussing these issues with people of intelligence and good will. But that does not include these folks, people like Vicki Fyke of the Livingston Organization for Values in Education (or LOVE). These people, frankly, need to have their heads examined. And they should be excluded from these debates until they can conduct themselves with some manner of intelligence, respect, and restraint. We as a society need to clearly and firmly say to them: we reject out-of-hand your small-minded zealotry.

A reminder: these are my personal opinions. I am not speaking for all the members of AS IF!


Blogger Jordan Sonnenblick said...

Amen, Brother Brent!

This stuff absolutely KILLS me.

12:38 PM  
Blogger Lisa Yee said...

What's scary is that the government is taking this seriously.

1:34 PM  
Blogger Debbie Jacobs said...

Brent, I moved here from Canada about six years ago. What struck me then, and now, was the atmosphere of fear in the States. This was before 9/11, in fact.
What were people afraid of? It seemed like everything. The local police, government in general, the IRS in particular. Even afraid of their neighbors, of going for a walk at night, of teens who (gasp) defied curfew!
The very concept of a curfew for teens boggled my mind. And now, a local mall wants to only allow teens with parents in attendance, or teens who consent to being "carded" at the door. What's with that?
I think generalized fear manifests in a lot of bizarre ways, and one of those ways is trying to control "exposure to obscene material." It's just more fear, only, in this case, people are chosing something they think they can control (unlike government or the IRS.)
It scares me.
Debbie Jacobs

2:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This could've been quite simple for the school board.

Allow them to be independent reading assignments, where the teacher, the student, and the parents could decide if it's appropriate.

But instead, the school board made the books required reading. (Or the students could face the embarassment of having "mommy" request an alternate assignment, and sit as outcasts in the hallway during class).

You can spin this as some negative next step, but the truth is that is shouldn't be necessary to make make kids read this stuff.

These are great, thought-provking books. But are they ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL to educate our kids?

8:10 PM  
Blogger Brent Hartinger said...

Anonymous, fine, let's debate whether English teachers should have the right to assign these books, or not (understanding that every student, and every parent, also has the right to "opt out").

But that's not the subject of this post. The post is about whether or not these books are "obscene," and the teachers should be prosecuted (and imprisoned?) under obscenity laws that outlaw the distribution of pornography to minors.

And on your point about whether these particular books are absolutely "essential" in educating kids? Maybe not. But academic freedom, the right of teachers to present the books that they deem appropriate and are obviously within the realm of "classic" literature? Yup, that's pretty much essential for a basic education.

11:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a American, choosing a book -- any book -- is absolutely your right.

However, I would question whether a teacher has "a right" to choose whatever books they deem appropriate.

To suggest that implies that there are no boundaries for those who teach our children.

Forget these particular books for a minute, and think about my previous statement.

Should their be boundaries?

For the sake of discussion, suppose a tenured teacher (meaning untouchable) became something repulsive, such as a white-supremist. There are probably thought-provoking books on that subject. Should that teacher have "a right" to use those books?

Take it a step further... what if that book became "required reading"?

Those that would prefer to instead see these books be used as independent reading projects are not zealots; they are trying to influence the culture in the same way that their opponents are.

Suggesting that they are, or that they are "book burners" is as absurd and hyperbolic as saying that those that want these books used as required reading are perverts.

I've certainly strayed a bit from your prefered topic, which is whether these are pornographic, but I felt the example above might help to illustrate the point.

If a teacher wanted to use racist material, I would advocate pursing legal review under "hate crime" laws, just as this group is pursing legal review under obsenity laws.

I think the "rights" and the legal perspective are interrelated.

12:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Teachers in the public schools in question can't get tenured - that's a university-level concept.

Lovers of free speech support those accused of requiring racist literature, too - and I can't off the top of my head think of a book challenged on this basis that actually was. Huck Finn? To Kill a Mockingbird? Get real.

The important points are these: The teacher/librarian who selected the book is a professional entrusted with the education of these children. Such a person must be permitted to do her job as she sees fit, or she spends all her time covering her ass, second-guessing, and stressing out over where the next attack will come from instead of teaching.

The schools have procedures in place to deal with parents who don't trust the professionals or have objections to the curriculum.

Teachers who prove untrustworthy can be removed, but are innocent until proven guilty.

Many (dare I say most?) such crusades against books are conducted on unliterary, indeed antiliterary, grounds and have no merit. They make illegitimate assumptions about what literature is, how it works, and the nature of education. They are emotional appeals to prejudice, not reasoned approaches to real problems.

Many books with legitimately objectionable content also have a high educational value, in that they permit the content to be discussed in a rational, rather than emotional, context. Literature allows us to see, in a safe way, why people do wrong things, and why these things are wrong. We all have the capacity for evil. How can we avoid it in our own behavior if we're never taught to think about it?

After your brain finishes growing (i.e., in the early 20s), your ability to learn new ways to think is increasingly limited. If adults are to know how to think, debate, and engage actively with complex text, children and teen-agers must learn to do these things. Controversial literature is an important tool in this process.

4:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are most certainly tenure laws in Michigan which are very tough.

It is granted automatically after 4 years.

Once you have "the golden ticket", a teacher can do anything, including use questionable literature.

They are first protected by the union, and then by tenure laws.

6:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One point to think about here, Peni, is that saying, "Lovers of free speech" implies that anyone trying to set boundaries must not be a supporter of free speech.

As Americans we have a reflex reaction against anything that smacks of tyranny, such as an infringement on free speech.

Many have the same reflex reaction to this issue, but there is a big difference. Sadly, most can only see this in black or white: there are either no boundaries or we are instead Nazi's.

There are many shades of grey here; one of which contains a more appropriate answer.

To take your point to an absurd but logical point, would think it's appropriate for a librarian to offer Playboy magazine? It would, of course, be for the thought-provoking articles.

You said, "Teachers who prove untrustworthy can be removed" That is not true in Michigan, and many other states for that matter.

6:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a public librarian who hopes you'll reverse your thinking again & agree that in a free, democratic society, ALL viewpoints, even the most heinous, must be permitted to air. The ALA & Amer.Book Publishers Council said it best in their "Freedom to Read" statement: "We believe rather that what people read is important; ideas can be dangerous; but the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. Freedom itself is a dangerous way of life, but it is ours." Even the ideas of "LOVE" & Vicki Fyke have to be allowed.

12:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not a matter of reversing my opinion; I already agree with you.

All ideas need to air.

The question is whether we need to force ideas on children.

These books have wonderful messages that would be equally wonderful and powerful without the graphic sex descriptions.

Fyke's arguement has nothing to do with the idea's being conveyed.

1:35 PM  
Blogger Brent Hartinger said...

Boundary Hunter, by all means, speak out. But let's be clear what these people are saying: "Because I don't agree with the opinion of this professional teacher, instruction on this book should not be provided to any other student."

As I said, every parent and every student has the right to "opt out" of any book; they don't want their kids reading it, their kids don't have to read it. But they don't have the right to determine what the teacher, and the school, can teach. To suggest otherwise is to allow every parent a veto over every book being taught. And I've been following these book challenges long enough to know that almost every classic book has a contingent of people who feel it should be banned. The result, in other words, leaves school libraries almost literally empty.

Can parents influence schools and teachers? Definitely. As I said, speak out. Every school district should have a complaint policy, and a review policy.

But when it comes to overruling teacher's decision to teach a particular book, I think the bar should be set pretty high. I think undercutting and micromanaging the authority of these professional educators is insulting to both teachers and students. And I can't imagine any school district where these particular classic books by important authors would meet the requirement necessary to have them removed. The analogy with racist tracts is just not apt; it's not the same thing at all--apples and oranges.

I want to reiterate that none of this is the subject of this post. My original post is about people who want to put teachers in prison for teaching these books. The opponents of these books complained, the books were reviewed by administrators, and they lost. So these activists decided to report the teachers to the FBI for distributing "pornography." Now the careers and integrity of these teachers are under attack.

And I think taking the argument seriously at all is just beyond outrageous. If allowed to procede, the whole notion of academic independence and intellectural freedom will be under attack.

11:15 PM  
Blogger Brent Hartinger said...

Anonymous, I'm not suggesting that the members of L.O.V.E. be imprisoned for their ideas, as they're suggesting the teachers who taught these books should be.

I'm saying that this argument--that classic books by important authors are "pornography" and should be prosecuted--is not an argument worthy of serious rebuttal. It is sheer lunancy, the thinking of an extremist group of fringe radicals. Taking these ideas seriously means legitimizing them. I categorically reject as un-American that idea that we should shoot those who oppose the president, as some apparently want, and I categorically reject the idea that teachers should be threatened with prison by teaching classic books.

They have a right to make their argument. I have a right to ridicule and reject that argument, hopefully pointing out just how ridiculous and extreme it is.

11:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A teacher's decision to assign a book should not and cannot be equated with "forcing" the book on students.

In the first place, every school board has policies in place that allow students to opt out of a particular assignment on religious or moral grounds.

If a parent has particular concerns about the curriculum materials presented to his or her child as a whole, there is a wide range of private schools and even the home school option available to address those concerns.

I submit that the power and glory of Morrison's and Wright's work is their willingness to tell their tales "true," with all the pain, ugliness, and despair revealed.

Fyke would condemn these wonderful works because they depict the truth she would prefer not exist. But sex, the abuse of sex, the misuse of power, racism, physical abuse, fear, and anger are all part of life. Surely, senior high school students are acquainted with that knowledge; but Fyke would prefer to believe that the 17 year old's intellect and morality is as undeveloped as a five year old's.

Fyke is wrong. No child or youth ever became a reprobate simply because he or she read a book, or encountered an idea.

My guess is that Fyke fears that the students of Howell High might just enlarge their world view beyond the borders of Howell, and understand that not all lives are led in the perfect, simple light of fundamentalist Christianity. The horror, that young people might develop charity and understanding for others, and abhor a society that allows the existence of racism and child abuse.

11:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you, Brent, that putting the teachers in jail is not the appropriate course of action.

But you have failed to recognize the distinction between "required reading" and "independent reading".

You suggest they are saying, "Because I don't agree with the opinion of this professional teacher, instruction on this book should not be provided to any other student."

They are not saying that. I too have been through a number of these debates, and everyone jumps to that conclusion.

Why is that?

What is wrong with making it an independent reading assignment, and choose something that doesn't have the sex for the required reading?

2:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If they are asking a federal prosecutor to determine that the works are pornographic, of course they are asking that they be kept from all students. If the distribution of these books is a violation of the law, then giving them to anyone would be a crime. I'm sorry, Boundary Hunter, I don't think these LOVE people are the ones to use as examples here. They are not asking for options. Heck, they want BUS DRIVERS and other staff members to be subject to distribution of pornography charges.

From the Livingston Press & Argus:

"Fyke and the Livingston Organization for Values in Education have asked Livingston County Prosecutor David Morse to look into more aspects of the books' assignments in the high school, including whether support staffers — bus drivers or janitors, for example — could be breaking any laws if they give the books to students.

'It's very possible that a student might leave a book on a bus, and they might pick it up and hand it back,' Fyke said. 'They're actually passing out stuff that no other person could.'"

Also, the original challenge posed by the LOVE people was over books in an AP class. AP stands for Advanced Placement, college courses taught in high schools. AP is NEVER a required course, it's always elected by the student. They are not interested in negotiating choice but imposing their views.

By the way, the prosecutor has just ruled that use of these books break no law. It's up to the school board and the school board has already decided.

8:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, Rosemary, the group did try to talk to the school board, and simply ask that they make some choice -- any choice -- that doesn't contain such graphic depictions of sex.

The board instead refused to discuss any reasonable boundaries.

With so many good choices available, it's not clear why these particular books are so needed.

The group has contacted 29 other school districts around the area, and NOT ONE OF THEM use these books. Yet they are all able to successfully teach that AP English class.

I'm sure the districts and teachers in those districts believe they are doing a great job!

Incidentally, it's interesting to note that the group has not made a peep about the books used in the other districts, so it's hardly fair to label them as extremists.

12:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have no problem calling the LOVE people extremists. They are exactly that. They read naughty bits from books aloud at school board meetings and try to bully elected officials into doing their bidding. When they fail, they try to sic the feds on teachers. And bus drivers. And lunch ladies.

They tried to get the books out of the classroom and were turned down after very careful consideration. Here is a link to the minutes of the Howell County Board of Education meeting in which the decision was made. There are summaries of the public comments and a record of the vote whereby the board, taking into consideration the findings of its curriculum committee and the public, decided to keep the controversial books in the classroom.

From those minutes one can also see that Howell has an optional alternative reading available for those students who wish not to participate in the class reading.

But the LOVE folks weren't satisfied with the option of opting their own kids out.

2:54 PM  
Blogger Brent Hartinger said...

Boundary Hunter, it's a question of educational independence. Yes, there is a review policy when parents complain. But ultimately, we simply have to trust educators to make the decisions they seem best for their students (again, with administrative overview, so please don't repeat the straw man argument about racist books).

Some books must be assigned. The teacher thought THESE books the best ones. Of COURSE other teachers are going to see things differently, and of COURSE they're going to choose different books. They all make their own independent decisions, based on their students, their areas of expertise, their interests.

To secondguess teachers, to micromanage them, as your suggesting, literally means the teacher can only teach materials that every single parent in every single class completely signs off on. That means, effectively, giving every single parent a veto over how a teacher runs his or her class (and again, parents already have the right to "opt out" of any book--they can veto the materials for THEIR OWN kids, just not for the entire class. And parents also always have the option of removing their kids from that class, or of home-schooling).

Trust me, it's just not workable to let parents micromanage public instruction like that. And with no guidelines whatsoever, no pre-determined policies to follow? Just based on whatever a parent "feels" is right? How does a teacher teach in that envirnment? Getting approval of every lesson before every class? Because, trust me, there are some parents who will want exactly that.

I understand you're trying to thoughtfully think about this issue, and I appreciate that. But I don't think you're being realistic.

Ultimately, though, for me it comes to the fact that this is such an insult to these teachers, these professional educators, that they can't be trusted to do their jobs. Who want would to work after being insulted like that?

5:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I must say Brent that I've enjoyed our little exchange. We obviously don't agree, but at least you are willing to discuss this rationally.

I understand your point about micromanagement, and you evidently feel that this is a slippery slope. If you allow any sort of common sense control, then it will immediately spiral out of control.

Sorry, but it’s just absurd to think it would get that far. I offered an equally absurd argument earlier, but at least I admitted up front it was absurd!

Anyway, I can see you are pretty set in your ways on this so I won’t consume anymore of your blog. But I will leave you with this parting thought:

I was at that meeting in Howell. The committee that Rosemary refers to hardly gave "careful consideration." Some of the teachers on the committee admitted that they never even read the books.

Furthermore, there were no parents on the committee, which is wrong considering it is a public school.

And, the board didn’t give “careful consideration” either. Those that supported using the books as required reading primarily used the argument that you have used, which is to grant unlimited “rights” to the teachers.

That is certainly the board’s prerogative.

But what I believe the board has failed to do is attempt to find a balance in its approach.

When you view these matters in a narrow-minded, one-sided way, what you end up with is a divisive battle.

Rosemary, for example, seems to view this as an absolute. She feels righteous in the way she brands these people that see things differently than her.

But her inability to recognize any legitimacy whatsoever in the points of her “enemy” do nothing but fuel the fire.

Had the board done it’s job and tried to represent the concerns of the community as a whole, I doubt LOVE would’ve felt marginalized, which is probably what led them to take their next step.

Regardless of what the FBI, and ultimately Murphy decide, this matter will ping-pong back and forth and further divide the community.

By not recognizing that both sides have legitimate concerns, and attempting to find a reasonable compromise solution, the school board has failed in its duty.

And the consequences might be equally disturbing. Those in the majority that take hard-line stances frequently get booted, and replaced with other hard-liners on the opposite side of the spectrum. Imagine how ugly things will get if that happens on this board.

The wise thing for this board would’ve been to find a reasonable compromise.

10:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

L.O.V.E., harassing the Howell Board of Education, striving to make high school safe for anti-gay graffiti since 2005.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Brent Hartinger said...

Boundary Hunter, I appreciate hearing about your experiences. But keep in mind that some of us in this group have lots of experience dealing with exactly these kinds of challenges. And my experiences have informed my opinions. Slipperly slope? You bet. I've seen it happen. (But I'm actually more worried about a stifling, chilling, intellectually depressing atmosphere for teachers and authors--I've seen that happen too.)

1:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, I'm a Board of Education trustee. I've seen a bit too.


2:29 PM  
Blogger Brent Hartinger said...


I feel like we're Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss comparing shark scars in JAWS.

8:00 PM  
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8:41 PM  

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