Sunday, October 11, 2009

To kill a book

I've not jumped into this yet, but saw an opportunity with Kingston Whig-Standard freelance columnist Frasier Petrick's piece published Friday. The subject is the recent hubbub over "To Kill a Mockingbird," in a Toronto board after a complaint from a parent about the language in the classic novel.
FYI, that novel was one included in my Grade 9 English curriculum. We also read "Merchant of Venice" that year, and in later years, to tie back into Petrick's piece, read "Hamlet," and "Oedipus Rex."
From the column:
Not to belittle it, because it is significant -- to a point -- but the objection commonly cited is that the book contains the "n-word." A respectful realist could point out that the story is set in the 1930s, and, like it or not, the "n-word" was common parlance then everywhere, not just in the much-maligned American south -- and even in holier-than-thou Canada.
A disrespectful cynic might come back, tit-for-tat, with the suggestion that Hamlet, too, should be banned. After all, in the story the Danish prince assaults his own mother and kills off half the cast.
Nevertheless, To Kill a Mockingbird comes up just about as regularly as Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species does in the American Bible Belt as something to be forbidden. Both works are perpetually in the cross-hairs of book burners, the benign ones and the hysterical ones.
One parent -- and all it takes is one -- will complain to a school principal or a school board that Harper Lee's masterwork is required reading or is available in the school library. The milquetoast administrators go into cover-your-behind mode. Instead of taking a stand, they retreat to the warm and fuzzy confines of political correctness, a culture-destroying phenomenon universally despised but, regrettably, despised only privately and safely behind closed doors. One parent will complain, legitimately or petulantly about To Kill a Mockingbird or some other book, and the controversy-averse administration will fold like a house of cards: "Oh dear, oh dear, someone is unhappy. Someone has had their feelings hurt. Someone wants to sanitize literature or history or science. Let's form a committee."

Context is king here, isn't it?
Mockingbird is in the curriculum for a valid reason-- what Lee had to say about race relations and humanity in 1930s southern U.S. It's not in there because of the now-impolite, innapropriate word it contains. The list of great literature available for curriculum would be mighty thin (and have the culture and literature variety of Pablum) if every text containing questionable or objectionable vocabulary or scenes was omitted.
The proper response? I would think there could have been a way to acknowledge the offensive nature of some of the vocabulary and use that as an opportunity to educate (wow, imagine that happening in a school) instead of just calling for a ban.


Anonymous said...

How many school boards would ban a book based on ONE PARENT'S opinion??
Must be a wonderful school board for parents if that's the case. Acting on the concern of one parent is almost never heard of.

I studied this novel in high school as it related to the curriculum. I was able then to understand that it represented a time in the southern U.S. that was being raised.