A Bad Week for Knowledge and Learning in Georgia

What a sad week for knowledge and learning in Georgia.

We’ve managed to make regional and national news twice for actions surrounding our treatment of books in education settings, and neither has shone a positive light on us. First, the county where I went to high school and where my parents still live caught our attention by deeming three critically acclaimed books “unacceptable” due to content and then, freshmen at one of the state’s largest universities held a book burning after the author of their required book for First Year Experience visited campus.

Hoooo, boy. And a happy belated Banned Books Week to you, too!

In the case of the Columbia County Board of Education, the superintendent struck three proposed novels from the list of recommended supplemental reading, even though two teachers on the “novel committee” had recommended each of them. The three novels, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Dear Martin, and Regeneration, all come with hosts of critical acclamation, from starred reviews in Booklist and praise by the New York Times to suggested curriculums from School Library Journal. Dear Martin is newer, but the other two books have been around for more than 10 years. So, what’s wrong with these three books in the eyes of Dr. Sandra Carraway?

According to the article in the Augusta Chronicle, Dr. Carraway specifically asked the teachers on the District Reading Resources Professional Learning Community (i.e., novel committee) for “reading difficulty and page numbers of any potential areas of concern, including profanity or sexual content.” However, lest anyone assume profanity is the issue here, other novels with profanity (and apparently lots of it, according to the article) were approved.

These novels, however, do have noted incidents that challenge the mainline opinion, particularly in an area like Columbia County, which is majority white, Christian, and conservative, and is desperate for folks not to notice there are a few needy individuals scattered amongst the mostly well-heeled population.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has been challenged several times for profanity, but a recurrent theme in several of the cases is that the religious viewpoint might be the bigger sticking point, as evidenced by two more-than-a-decade old instances in Texas that I can only find behind a paywall and the 2015 challenge in Florida. I curiously did not find challenges to Regeneration, though it does address a self-induced abortion on two pages. Finally, Dear Martin depicts the murder of an African-American teen by a (white) off-duty police officer, who is not convicted of the crime. Given that other novels with multiple instances of profanity were approved, it seems likely that the political undercurrent of the county probably points to the themes hit upon here being the larger issue in all instances.

Predictably, the Augusta Chronicle‘s editorial page has come to the conclusion that because Dr. Carraway was an English teacher, she must know better than everyone else about the academic merit of these books (never mind the reviews, recommendations, and awards from multiple sources). However, she was already in administration at Riverside Middle when my brother was going through, and he’s currently 33 years old. That’s not to say that she doesn’t have an excellent background in English or that she’s unaware of appropriate child development. She does and isn’t.

What it does mean, however, is that calling her an English teacher is like calling me an English teacher. I’ve taught in a high school classroom more recently than she has, but since that time, I’ve worked for four different congressmen, worked two separate campaign seasons, left politics and spent more than a year at the Columbia County library as an assistant as I prepared for and applied to library science programs, gone to graduate school full time to earn a masters in library science, and been employed as an archivist for three years. So… yeah, calling me an English teacher would be a stretch. I’ll bet, like me, that Dr. Carraway isn’t reading Booklist, or maintaining a membership in NCTE, or keeping up with high school English teacher listservs anymore. She also, probably, doesn’t know the students who these teachers who submitted the books for will teach. A literal generation has passed with her in progressively higher administrative positions in Columbia County not only because she has been a competent administrator, but also because she is able to maneuver the political aspects at that level in that county. (Mad respect for that, by the way. I couldn’t do it.)

I do think that there needs to be a review process by which books are chosen for high schoolers in Columbia County and everywhere else. However, what concerns me here is that all the two reviewers are asked to submit to Dr. Carraway are the reading difficulty and potential controversial topics. She and I might both have English degrees, but the likelihood that we’ve read all the books suggested every year on any reading list we don’t personally create is exactly nil, and assessing potential controversy is no way to determine “academic merit.” It seems to me that if that were the concern, there would be room for a plot summary, important themes, and a proposal from the teacher submitting the request as to how to introduce the controversial topics and guide discussions around them. It’s important for students to be introduced to controversial topics in a controlled environment, after all, which the Chronicle‘s op-ed acknowledges. It lists a range of books that are available that have “morally uncomfortable themes,” including The Great Gatsby, 1984, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird. (Hey, it’s almost as if they found this page of the most frequently challenged classics from the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom and pulled whatever seemed edgy-yet-safe from that list.)

Unfortunately for the Chronicle, their opinion piece came out the day before Georgia Southern students would make my case for me as to why preventing high school teachers from introducing these topics before they go away to college is a terrible idea.

Enter the now-nationally infamous book burning.

Members of the freshman class burned the required book for their freshman year experience course after the author visited campus, and this was either caught on camera by other students, or occasionally, by the students participating in the book burning themselves. The book is Jennine Capó Crucet’s Make Your Home Among Strangers, and to be sure, without the required context and guidance, young adults who are only exposed to books where white people are the heroes or were only long ago bad in a different time (as with To Kill a Mockingbird) are apt to respond with difficulty when this viewpoint in challenged. Imagine being away from home for the first time, with only your peers as guideposts for moral behavior as you listen to this author with whom you disagree address their work in an auditorium where you are required to be, and being given the opportunity to defend the viewpoint that has been reinforced to you all of your lifetime. You might see how this could be problematic.

Indeed, it has been. Many of the participants in the book burning didn’t foresee or have any concept of the visual it would create, so there they are, giggling as they show their faces to the camera for their social media posts. Never mind the gross associations book burnings have with the likes of Nazis and Mao Zedong and the Taliban. Never mind that there has never been a book burning associated with freedom and acceptance since the founding of the printing press. Yikes.

Georgia Southern ended up with a black eye over the incident, for sure. I mean, this is not why one wants to be in The Washington Post. I think they’re wrong to not have formal consequences for these students, like required diversity training and community service for all of them. Further, since the University System is revising the core anyway, I think that all of our critical thinking courses in Area B need to address civil discourse. (Yes, I added my suggestion. Yes, I’ll be thrilled if you also submit this suggestion.)

College is too late to introduce minority viewpoints to students. They need to know they will encounter people who disagree with them, and who have different outlooks than them, in the world. They need to know that it’s okay to disagree with those folks. They need to know it’s okay if not everyone likes them, and sometimes that will be because of that person’s experiences with others of their race that have nothing to do with them personally. They need to know that how they conduct themselves is the only thing they can control, and that it is imperative that they constantly consider the consequences of acting out. High school is the perfect place for this. Here, they have teachers who can guide conversations, and they go home to parents who can (if they wish) give more context or explain why their belief system excludes or discourages certain actions.

As the Chronicle points out in its op-ed, the books struck from the list by Dr. Carraway will still be available in bookstores and libraries. It’s just too bad for Columbia County students, however, that their school system is denying them an opportunity to be introduced to different viewpoints (in books with extensively documented academic merit) in a controlled environment by education professionals who know them. I can only hope they are still able to come out better prepared for our diverse society than the Georgia Southern students who made national news for burning books this week.


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