October 30, 2007

Lessons Beyond Reading... and Administration

Justin Katz

The truth — unfortunate or fortunate — is that I read much more explicit, more sexually descriptive texts for school work than Will Clarke's "How to Kill a Boy That No One Liked" (PDF sample courtesy of Dan Yorke), including, for example, books by Stephen King in which not a few young fellas likely knew the page numbers of the really juicy parts. There are two significant differences between that memory and the circumstances in which her daughter came to read Clarke's essay to which Lori Drew of Cumberland objects: I read such books for pick-your-own-book projects, so the onus for my choices ultimately rested with myself and my parents, and the readings were generally additional to the basic requirements. In the case of Ms. Drew's daughter, the text was specifically handed out, and it was meant to be compelling for unaccomplished and reluctant readers, presumably in place of the more appropriate materials that they would not read.

That last point is the worrying one, in the context (the subtext, one might say) of what the grownups are saying just below the surface. From the Projo story, here's Cumberland School Committee Chairman Frederic C. Crowley:

"It's no Catcher in the Rye, and there is language that is offensive in the essay, but no more than what kids are exposed to in music, video games, television shows and movies," he said. "I think it's a very appropriate decision. [Morelle] handled the issue immediately and she handled it correctly."

Here's John McNally, the editor of the book containing Clarke's story:

I'm not a scientist, so I don't tell scientists what to do. I'm not a physician, so I don't tell my doctor how he should treat me. But when it comes to "art," people who know nothing about it are quick to make uninformed judgments in the name of "protecting" their children from what ... the words on the page? The ideas connected to the words? The images the words may conjure in the reader's head?

And Here's Mr. Clarke himself:

Look lady, leave that poor teacher who assigned my story alone. And stop talking about sex with animals to every person with a microphone. You got your daughter out of the reading class and into a free office worker period where her mind won't be ruined by books. What else do you want?

Thus, with the ease of badminton quips, whacking a double-sized shuttlecock, the distant cultural missionaries, once invited in, proceed to force conscientious objectors out of their own classrooms. The point that Clarke studiously ignores is that Lori Drew does not want her daughter to miss out on her reading class, and it's a sneering vanity in the line of thought from the author through the school officials through the teacher herself that insists that the school establishment compromise the education of children whose parents have moral objections rather than conform the curriculum to basic minimum of standards of taste amenable to all, especially given the specific objective of a reading assignment. The children in Miss Drew's class are in need of additional help; the burden of adults' canned counterestablishmentarianism oughtn't be placed on their shoulders.

McNally recites the oft-employed reasoning that artists know art, and implies that those with less finely tuned aesthetic senses are foolish to fear words, images, or even ideas. Having strung words into a book or two, myself, I'll testify that it is a poor artist, indeed, who isn't fascinated — even awe-struck — by the power of that very triumvirate. (Come now, Mr. McNally, let's dispense with the faux innocence with respect to this poorly kept secret.) Moreover, in her attempt to push anything consisting of the English language past the eyes of her reluctant readers, those three aspects are certainly what attracted the teacher to Clarke in the first place.

There's a more direct, less abstract response to McNally, however: If the parents are out of their depth interpreting the texts in his book, how much more so will the children be? What message are they receiving from When I Was a Loser? One author defends Clarke by pointing out that his own essay in the book is far more explicit. The Providence Journal story describes another essay about a young woman who "rationalized her secret sexual promiscuity and her image as a good Christian girl."

In this light, Clarke's essay may be the more deleterious. Having read only what Dan Yorke has made available (because I lack the interest to purchase the book and the time to read it in the aisle of a book store or library), I cannot say without disclaimer, but the take-away appears to be that sex sells, even when it is hidden — the supposedly benign three letters of the word itself — in a student-politician's campaign poster. That may be true enough, but is that a lesson that must receive a school's imprimatur, within a behind-the-curve reading class? Such kids are facing high enough hurdles without the school's reinforcing and legitimizing the corruptive lessons of "music, video games, television shows and movies."

Authors write as they wish, and we ignore at our peril the reality that people sinking in mire must by necessity grab for redemptive vines covered in the same muck. The real illness on display, it seems to me, is in the fear of mere "connotations" that has kept School Superintendent Donna Morelle from responding more appropriately to the needs of an actual student, and her family, within her care:

"We're not banning books or anything like that," Morelle said. "There's a whole set of connotations about banning books. That's not a boundary that I'm ever willing to cross."

As if books are not removed from reading lists (or kept off them in the first place) for a range of reasons all requiring judgment of some fashion. Yeah, banning books is bad. Repressive. I've seen that movie, too. But sometimes grownups have to question their own moral absolutes for the sake of those under their power. And sometimes parents have better standing (let alone a right) to determine whether the grimy threads will reach their children as lifelines or as a net.

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After listening to this on the radio and reading this article I still fail to find the basis of the outrage.

If you allow 15 year olds (an age formerly indicative of one adult enough to bear children, be married and raise a homestead) to be exposed to 'offensive' material do we not force them to make intelligent decisions on content, their own thresholds and maybe, just maybe, learn something?

Posted by: Greg at October 30, 2007 7:58 AM

I listened to Ms. Drew on Dan's show yesterday. Dan had a good point that the content of the book was, most likely, nothing more than her duaghter had already been exposed to. However, Ms. Drew had an excellent point that parents are constantly pressed to shelter their children from the "evils" in society of movies, TV shows, the internet, video games, etc. only to have them targeted in what most parents preceive to be a safe environment.

I'm not saint by any stretch of the imagination, but I remember back when I was in high school, if there was any reading assignemtns that may cross that controversial line, our parents were asked to sign permission slips. The teachers were on the hook for providing alternate reading assignments for the kids whose parents felt the topic was a little too hot. Of course, back then it was a matter of The Color Purple's use of the "N" word...

Posted by: Brian at October 30, 2007 7:58 AM

I'll bet that Mr. Clarke didn't utter a peep when schools started banning "Tom Sawyer" because of the "N" word.

Rank hypocrisy, but that's merely the surface issue; what's going on in public schools today isn't about artistic freedom or education, it's about social engineering and indoctrination.

Read up on what is being "taught" in colleges of education - and how they are screening applicants and graduates for "proper attitudes" and you'll see the root of this evil (the teachers college at Columbia recently got exposed regarding this).

Parents would be shocked if they knew the kind of stuff their children are being exposed to, e.g., images homosexual princes in stories given to second graders.

Yet another reason for vouchers.

Posted by: Ragin' Rhode Islander at October 30, 2007 9:08 AM

Two things:

1) It appears you haven't read the essay since you're citing a PDF excerpt from a radio website. In the radio interview, the mother was asked if the entire essay was pretty much like the excerpted part, and the mother said that it was. Well, it's not. She, like so many others in this debate, either haven't read Will Clarke's essay or have cherry-picked words and excerpts from the essay to support their argument instead of looking at those words and excerpts in A LARGER CONTEXT.

2) I see, too, that you've cherry-picked from my website to suit your argument, thereby ignoring the rest of what I had to say in order to simplify my point.

Well, I wish you all the best piecing together your blog on the basis of soundbites, selective reading, hysteria, and misinformation.

John McNally
editor of WHEN I WAS A LOSER (which includes Will Clarke's essay)

Posted by: John McNally at October 30, 2007 9:33 AM

I think what is sad in this day an age is that you go into the library with your kids and you say to them, hey, why not read something like Mark Twain and they look at you like you have grown a horn in the middle of your forehead. I don't understand why it is that kids in middle school and high school are subjected to books that have topics such as rape, incest, alcholalism, drug abuse and my favorite deciding whether you should let your child die or not now that he's a quadraplegic.Why is it necessary to expose kids to this kind of writing, and then we wonder why they end up killing themselves or others. Kids now a days don't even know what the classics are. It's just a sad situation.

Posted by: Laura at October 30, 2007 10:14 AM

Hey John McNally --

What do you think of the Iraq war?

Oh, wait, you're not a general, or a diplomat, or the President, so I guess you can't have an opinion, or if you do you have to keep it to yourself . . .

The fact is, sometimes we DO have to tell scientists what to do (and what not to do), and sometimes we DO have to tell our doctors how we want them to treat us . . but more importantly, a child's parents do have rights and obligations to that child, rights and obligations that are separate and apart from the writers' and editors' decisions about their own art.

Posted by: brassband at October 30, 2007 10:16 AM

Hey brassband:

I have no problem with this mother expressing her opinion, but if you allow one parent to isolate a word or an image from a text at the expense of the context in which that word or image appears and then, based on that spurious and subjective criteria, try to dictate what gets taught and doesn't get taught, then you're going to go down a slippery slope in which every parent will have his or her own threshold for what should or shouldn't be taught. The fact is, the school's administration told this woman that her daughter could be exempted from the assignment, which seems fair enough to me. But that wasn't enough for her. Not only does she want assurances that her daughter would never be exposed to this kind of things again, she wants the text removed from the class. So, you see, at this point, she's dictating what OTHER KIDS in the class should be reading, not just what her daughter should be reading. So, yes, she can express her opinion all she wants, but once she (as an individual) starts saying what's best for the other kids in the class, then I think it's perfectly legitimate to ask, "What are your qualifications? What do you know about literature? What do you know about secondary education? What do you know about pedagogy?" Given that her child, by her own public admission, is repeating her freshman year of high school, I’m inclined to say that whatever she knows about those subjects, it’s probably not enough for her to be the one who makes decisions on behalf of other parents whose kids also attend that school. And that's the difference between your issue, logical fallacy though it is, about me being able to express my opinion about the Iraq war and this woman wanting to dictate what gets taught. I have no problem with her expressing her opinion. But let’s face it: What she wants is more than an opportunity to express her opinion. She wants the power to change curriculum. As for me expressing my opinion on the Iraq war, I already know that I have no power, no sway. Unlike this woman, who can meet with school board administrators, I won’t be winning an audience with generals or the Bush administration anytime soon, so your hyperbolic comparison doesn't hold water, sorry.

So, here’s my concern. Let’s say that this woman gets her way and that the school decides to remove the book from the curriculum. What happens when the next parent objects to the next book, and then another parent objects to yet another book? Maybe you’re fine with that. But if you are, you should be prepared for books that you cherish to be removed from the school since there’s nothing sacred when it comes to books that get banned, including the beloved (but frequently banned) Mark Twain, whom the reader above expressed her admiration for. The only harm I see being done here is by the mother who has opted to have her daughter removed from the class, when she the daughter is already repeating her freshman year and when there is no suitable alternative class at that particular time, and by using her daughter as a poster child for her own dubious agenda.

John McNally
editor of WHEN I WAS A LOSER

Posted by: John McNally at October 30, 2007 12:05 PM

>>"What are your qualifications? What do you know about literature? What do you know about secondary education? What do you know about pedagogy?"

The problem is, thanks to the teachers unions, most parents have no choice but to enroll their children in government schools.

As we've seen across the country, the attitude of education "professionals" is that kids are fair game for indoctrination into a "progressive" world view, and that the parents' preferences and opinions are mere annoyances to be ignored by the "professionals."

Hence we see 7 year olds subjected to homosexual imagery (two male princes); "Heather Has Two Mommies," Massachusetts' middle school "how to" sessions on homosexual sex (on tape, which the school authorities then sued to prevent the parent from sharing with the public); sessions with cucumbers showing how to put on condoms and, now in Maine and Maryland, middle schools handing out birth control to 11 year olds!

Mr. McNally has a valid point in that we can't let every single parent have a veto on curriculum. But at the same time, we can't let the "progressive" "professionals" have unfettered discretion to push a social agenda that is an anathema to many (and probably most) parents.

If we had universal vouchers, then parents could choose schools providing a curriculum in accord with their personal values.

Until that happy day, a tight rein should be kept on the "professionals" and their "pedagogy." As stated before, just read up on the "colleges of education" and their agenda - it's scary.

Posted by: Ragin' Rhode Islander at October 30, 2007 12:28 PM

Just wondering... Is dismissive School Committee Chairman, Fredric C. Crowley, related to aliiance entangled NEA rep/Democratic Party Town Chair, Patrick Crowley? Or should I ask, HOW are they related?


Posted by: Just Wondering... at October 30, 2007 12:28 PM

Bully, Mr. McNally. May you also be in the studio when Ms. Drew gets the O'Reilly Factor appearance she's obviously angling for.
If Ms. Drew decides a reading assignment is unsuitable for her kid, that's her business. But if she's treading upon my kid's reading assignment, that's my business. Down a nice shot of MYOB and go back to South Park, Ms. Drew - but first, think about how you're needlessly embarassing your daughter.
Ironically, having attended Catholic school in the '70s, I was assigned George Orwell's "1984" and "Animal Farm" (talk about two books relevant to national and R.I. politics today). Don't recall my dad, who was a much more hardcore Catholic than I ever, complaining about it. Those books were still banned in many public schools in that era.
More curriculums should be assigning Orwell today. No problem with Ayn Rand, either.

Posted by: Rhody at October 30, 2007 12:37 PM

Mr. McNally,

That was very well put. Thank you for standing up to the censors.

Posted by: Sparky at October 30, 2007 12:45 PM

Mr. McNally --

How about defending the literature on its merit, rather than attacking the qualifications of the Mom who doesn't want her daughter to read it?

How about staying away from the fact that the girl is repeating a grade? You don't have any idea why that has occurred, and in any event it's not really pertinent to the issue.

How about recognizing that this is a representative democracy? If the Mom -- or other parents -- are stirred up enough about this they have every right to run for School Committee, or General Assembly, and take part in the process of setting policy.

We hear an awful lot of complaining from teachers and school administrators about "parent apathy." When parents get involved we sometimes express opinions that make the teachers and administrators uncomfortable. I'd still take involvement over apathy any day.

Posted by: brassband at October 30, 2007 2:47 PM

Professor McNally,

I know your field is English and not Political Science, and I have no idea what your personal political leanings are, but in your response to Brassband, you've summed up everything that's wrong with the so-called "progressive" attitude these days -- regular citizens may express an opinion, only if it will have no effect on decisions being made. Otherwise, it's shut up and obey the experts; they are your betters.

RRI makes a good point. This kind of authoritarian tendancy is bolstered by the geographic-monopoly school system. If parents and students were choosing their schools, faculties would have greater opportunities to explain their curricula to the interested public, and that would be a good thing.

Posted by: Andrew at October 30, 2007 4:56 PM

"... at the expense of the context in which that word or image appears ..."

You're missing the point. There is no acceptable context for such words or images for children - defined as a person under the age of 18.

"... and then, based on that spurious and subjective criteria ..."

Her criteria are no more spurious or subjective than anyone elses.

"then you're going to go down a slippery slope"

Funny, I was just thinking slippery slope. Except I was thinking there was none; we've gone down the slope and reached the bottom. Because a teacher or teachers are employing profanities and pornographic references to teach children. And other people are defending this practice.

One more point. Can you or someone please explain the value of this material? Why is it necessary to use profanities and pornographic references when teaching children? Whatever the teacher wishes to teach, can it not be conveyed without the use of such references? Not to lead the witness, your honor, but haven't children been successfully educated in the past without these materials?

Posted by: Monique at October 30, 2007 6:01 PM

I heard Mr. McNally on the radio with Dan. While I side completely with him I did find his copious use of "ya know" at least twice in every sentence to be nothing short of physically painful after a point.

Posted by: Greg at October 30, 2007 6:01 PM

OK, John. What points did I exclude "cherry-picking" that are relevant to the argument that I was making? I didn't claim to have encapsulated your entire argument, nor was this piece of writing intended as a rebuttal thereto.

I'm also curious to which "logical fallacy" you've been referring the half-dozen or so times I've read or heard you making the claim. It appears that you're calling comparisons and analogies that you find erroneous or inapplicable to count, but it's not the logic that is fallacious in those cases. The phrase "logical fallacy" isn't an invisible wall to be thrown up around rhetorical opponents in order to invalidate their arguments on grounds that you presume them not to understand.

Posted by: Justin Katz at October 30, 2007 6:36 PM

Greg: Thanks for tip on "ya know." I appreciate it. It would drive me crazy, too. Best, John McNally

Posted by: John at October 30, 2007 9:45 PM

The Pawtucket Times is reporting that the Cumberland School system has done a one eighty:

"Cumberland Superintendent of Schools Donna A. Morelle said on Tuesday that the story is no longer a reading assignment at the high school. "It is no longer being given to students," Morelle said."



They did the right thing.

Posted by: Monique at October 31, 2007 4:55 PM

Mr. McNally, I am a public school teacher and have been for more than 15 years. I also have a degree in English/literature. And I am comfortable having an in depth discussion about pedagogy. With that in mind, I ask you to please stop babbling.

Your arrogance is stunning. I work for the community; its members pay my salary. The parents entrust me with their children. It is my responsibility to listen to parents, to learn from them, and to understand their concerns about their children.

No single parent will dictate what is or is not taught in Cumberland schools. Ms. Drew educated others as to the content of your book. And as a result, the essay in question will no longer be taught in CHS literature classes. This is not because Ms. Drew demanded it, but rather because she shed light on a text that clearly violates the acceptable norms of the community. She articulated her concerns with others, found many who were sympathetic, and then presented these concerns to the school leaders.

It was the community that eventually forced your text out of the classroom. Such is the power of community-based public education.

Posted by: mikeinRI at October 31, 2007 9:34 PM

Folks, I am trying to locate a copy of this book, so that I can indeed see the whole context of what troubled Mrs. Drew. I'll wager that the vulgarity is just symptomatic of things more deeply wrong than a coarse word here or there. Mr. McNally gives himself away by his refusal even to acknowledge that anyone could reasonably object to his book being taught to high schoolers. He's been treating Mrs. Drew to public ridicule for days now -- a thing I find really telling. Let's say I were showing the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to teenagers -- a film that, rightly understood, is not about sex and not about violence, but about man's resistance against the benevolent despotism of the "helping" professionals. (The same, I'd say, that deal with the little people and their schoolchildren in so high-handed and "benevolent" and tax-guzzling a way.) Then suppose a parent complained that the movie is just too graphic and raw for kids. I'm going, I suppose, to ridicule that parent? If I did, wouldn't I immediately show that I was NOT fit to be trusted with other people's children?

Now, I suppose that the school in Cumberland has assigned already all the plays of Shakespeare, the novels of Dickens, the poetry of Virgil and Homer and Keats and Wordsworth and Milton and Frost and Browning -- and simply has all kinds of time on its hands for Mr. McNally's book. Ah, but we don't want to BORE the students, no sir. So we pander to them a little, right? And immediately we see that the goal of a liberal education has been discarded. The LAST thing you ought to do to reading is to confirm students in the fads and stupidities of their age. The very purpose of a liberal education is to set you free from those fads, by taking you ELSEWHERE, to another time and place, another way of life -- to the heath with Lear, to Colonus with Oedipus, to the antarctic with Captain Scott.

And if anybody wants to challenge me on some supposed slippery slope between Dickens or Shakespeare or Chaucer and what is probably at best an ephemeral narcissistic book for people stuck in the neutral of perpetual adolescence -- again, I concede that I'm trying to procure a copy of it; it might be better than I guess, but it might also be much worse -- go right ahead. Start with Chaucer, if you like. I'll go on record as asserting that you should not teach The Miller's Tale to kids in high school. If you do, though, you will NOT be feeding them porno-twaddle -- and if you know what Chaucer is all about (and, if you're a high school teacher, you probably don't, and don't care), you'll be giving them the most politically INCORRECT take on lechery and fornication that they will hear in all their time at school.

Posted by: Tony at November 1, 2007 1:38 AM

I'm sorry to continue picking on the Cumberland School system now that they have withdrawn this reading material. But in retrospect, was it adviseable to handle this situation by having Mrs. Drew's daughter miss an entire year of a subject? The "A" she was to receive obviously would not have corresponded to the amount of learning that would have taken place for that year. How often does this happen, in Cumberland or throughout the state?

Posted by: Monique at November 1, 2007 7:29 AM

Morelle's pulling the book is what's known as picking your battles. The job of a school superintendent has become so politicized (the demands of school board members, budget questions, parents or interest groups threatening to run to Dan Yorke or John DePetro if they don't get their way) that sometimes, you have to cut your losses.
Morelle simply decided this book wasn't worth risking her job over. The problem is, some other parent emboldened by this incident will come up with a complaint that Morelle might be willing to risk her job over, and the situation could get uglier than this ever was.

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