The Things They Carried – A Challenge in Utah
By: OIF Assistant Director Kristin Pekoll
There are some books that make teachers love to teach. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is one of those books for English teachers at in South Jordan, Utah. A recent article brought to light a parent’s concerns about the semi-autobiographical short stories about the Vietnam War being taught in the college preparation English course for seniors in high school:
“Is it appropriate for those kind of details, for that kind of language, for the sexuality to be taught to minors in a public school setting?”
This specific class at the high school is intended to replicate the rigor and subject intensity of a college level course with high school level teacher support. This is not unlike many books students are required to read in college. Students have the option of taking other English courses and other college prep courses with other teachers. Their families are presented with the books they will be reading in the class at the beginning, and the teachers send home letters about the individual books being read when they begin reading them. Additionally, this student and her parent, as well as any other student who needed the accommodation, was given the choice of reading an alternative title.
But this was not enough. The parent has chosen to continue to contest the book’s status on the approved list for higher education literature to eliminate the opportunity for other students to learn from classroom discussion of this critically acclaimed resource.
Great works of literature help readers make sense of the world by addressing difficult topics. Suppressing that literature, shielding students from some of the difficult situations, issues and language contained in The Things They Carried, does not protect young people from the challenges that confront them. Nor does it make the underlying issues go away. Class discussions of such works of literature give students a forum for grappling emotionally and intellectually with difficult issues under the guidance of a caring and experienced educator.
No parent should be given the power to restrict other students’ ability to read and learn from a book.
As of today, no challenge form has been submitted to the Jordan School District to remove the book from the approved list, so it is unlikely that the parent will receive an audience with the committee. I believe she is hoping press attention will draw enough criticism of the district and the teacher that they will remove the book to avoid more controversy. She may not understand the strength and bravery that Jordan educators display in fighting for the right to read and the opportunity to learn.
I had the opportunity to ask one of the teachers why they were so passionate about teaching this specific book and their response blew me away.
“I have never read anything so raw and emotional. This book helped me understand on not only a literal level about events that happened during the Vietnam war, but on a psychological level I was able to understand PTSD and what happens to a person’s brain when they are dealing with grief. We talk about the grief cycle and the students take a survey and analyze their own grief patterns. They apply their knowledge of the grief cycle to the different characters in the novel and their reactions. What seem like so horrible of actions in the book are understood on a deeper level and cause the students to feel empathy or at least have a better understanding of the characters in their pain and trauma. The author also talks a lot about the line between truth and fiction. This is a year-long theme in my class- discussed in many of the novels we read. What is truth? What is fiction? Does fiction mean not true? Does Non-fiction mean true? We talk about perception. This book’s format is ideal for teaching the concept of the same event from a different perspective and the concept of memory vs truth.”
I wish I had had a teacher like that. How do we expect students on the cusp of adulthood to deal with life’s hardships if we can’t trust them to read about it in a book? If we remove these experiences, what does that say to the veterans who have served our country and survived the atrocities of war.
At the Stand for the Banned booth at the 2018 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference, librarians from around the world read from banned and challenged books, and shared their thoughts on the freedom to read. Jeff Key, a veteran, read from The Things They Carried. “War can end. If people write about it and open their hearts and minds.”
The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom extends its full support to the teachers and administrators of the Jordan School District, who are passionate in the education of their students. We encourage the district to continue affirming its strong mission of the English Department to students and their families, which states:
“We empower students in reading, writing, thinking, speaking, and listening to become lifelong learners, effective citizens, and precise communicators in our global world. Using rigor and relevance in language arts skill building, in studying a variety of fiction and non-fiction, and in providing numerous related writing experiences will enable our students to achieve confidence and success as they matriculate from high school to their future endeavors.”
By openly and clearly stating the value of education in its mission and demonstrating the importance and value of the freedom to read by keeping The Things They Carried in the classrooms, the Jordan School District will send a powerful message to students that, in this country, they have the responsibility and the right to think critically about what they read, rather than allowing others to think for them.
Kristin Pekoll is the Assistant Director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Kristin communicates with state library associations on current book challenges and publications that deal with censorship, privacy, ethics, and internet filtering. She organizes online education and training on the freedom to read and how to navigate reconsideration requests and media relations. Kristin started her career as a youth librarian in West Bend, Wisconsin. In 2009, over 80 YA LGBTQ books were challenged over 6 months. While the library board voted to retain all of the books in this case, she learned the indispensable value of support and education for librarians. She continued to fight against censorship in Wisconsin as the Intellectual Freedom Round Table Chair. Kristin’s husband and kids have joined her in Chicago but they all remain true Green Bay Packers fans. She enjoys zombies, knitting, and the Big Bang Theory. Find her on Twitter @kpekoll.
My son read this book as his choice from a summer reading list in high school for an AP/Dual Enrollment English course. I read it with him, and I can honestly say it was one of the most powerful books he has studied to this point. The book is raw and graphic, but it is also honest and does not sugarcoat the experiences of war. It provided opportunities for us to discuss the content in the context of our home and family morals. Questions about the book were often included in his high school scholastic bowl competitions, and he was one of the few students to be able to answer them correctly. This book is not an easy read and is not for everyone’s tastes, but the choice to study it should be available to anyone who is willing.