Let Students Learn: Our Response to the Removal of Classic Novels from Mat-Su School Curriculum

Banned and Challenged Books, Office for Intellectual Freedom

By: Deborah Caldwell-Stone, Director, Office of Intellectual Freedom

Last Wednesday, April 22, the school board of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District in Alaska (Mat-Su) met to consider a number of routine agenda items. Among the items for approval was the High School English Elective Curriculum and Reading List, which identified objectives and materials for already-approved courses that had been taught for many years in the Mat-Su high schools. 

Included in the materials for review was a document intended for parents noting that five novels for elective study — The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald — were “controversial,” based on information derived from banned book lists.  Based on this document alone — and without notice, public comment, or additional input from Mat-Su’s team of professional educators — the board voted, 5-2, to remove the five novels and the New York Times’ Learning Network from the curriculum, banning their use in Mat-Su’s high school English classrooms. 

Today, the Office for Intellectual Freedom, joined by Alaska librarians, the Freedom to Read Foundation, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and the American Booksellers for Free Expression, sent a letter to the Mat-Su school board urging them to reconsider their decision and return the books to the curriculum.

When school boards deny students the ability to read and engage with literature that depicts the range of human experience on the vague grounds of “controversy,” they diminish their students’ educational experience and disparage the constitutional values of free expression and free thought that underlie our democratic republic. Literature that illuminates the experiences lived by others expands horizons and develops empathy.  As the letter points out:

Precluding students from reading literature with challenging themes and language deprives them of the opportunity to acquire empathy, critical thinking skills, and knowledge about lives different from their own — essential competencies that are necessary for success in college and in life. 

Far from endorsing inappropriate behavior, these books do the opposite. For example, Maya Angelou acknowledges the strength of a protagonist who survives incest and racism; Ralph Ellison highlights the ingenuity and courage of a protagonist who overcomes racism. Similarly, Tim O’Brien celebrates the resilience and cameradie of those serving in the military while highlighting the moral paradoxes inherent in fighting a war. Honest depictions of harsh realities don’t victimize students who read about them; instead, they help those who are victims deal with the issues in their lives, and provide other students opportunities to discuss such subjects with trusted adults and classmates in a manner that does not trivialize them.

Our letter is co-signed by representatives from the Alaska Library Association, the Alaska Association of School Librarians, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, the Freedom to Read Foundation, the American Booksellers for Free Expression, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. The full text of the letter is below.

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Deborah Caldwell-Stone

Deborah Caldwell-Stone is Director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and Executive Director of the Freedom to Read Foundation. She is a recovering attorney and former appellate litigator who now works closely with librarians, library trustees and educators on a wide range of intellectual freedom and privacy issues, including book challenges, Internet filtering, meeting room policies, government surveillance, and the impact of new technologies on library patrons’ privacy and confidentiality. She has served on the faculty of the ALA-sponsored Lawyers for Libraries and Law for Librarians workshops and speaks frequently to librarians and library organizations around the country about intellectual freedom and privacy in libraries.

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