In book debate, ask the teachers

We’re in day three of the Great To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn Controversy of 2018 from Duluth, where the school system has removed (not banned) the two books from the list of required reading.

News travels slowly from Duluth so it’s taken awhile to get people wound up who’ve never read either book but have an opinion anyway.

An anti-censorship group, the National Coalition Against Censorship, is the latest to weigh in saying:

No parent or group of parents is qualified to make the choice of what other children should read. Those choices are made by teachers who can assess the intellectual maturity of their students and direct discussions on sensitive subjects toward educationally enriching ends.

It is regrettable that teachers were not consulted before the decision to remove these classic works was made.

That’s the part of the story that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as perhaps it should.

English teachers were never consulted before a decision was made to remove the two books from the English curriculum. They might even favor finding a different perspective — authors of color, anyone? — to teach the same material. But what does it say about how much you value your teachers with expertise if you don’t even ask them for it?

In his excellent column today, the Pioneer Press’ Ruben Rosario asks a good question: “Who in the end determines what is a classic, what qualifies for required reading, and what is appropriate for our children to read in the school setting?”

Should it be the teacher, the teacher in consultation with parents, the principal, the school district, the students themselves?

I think of Gary Lewis, one of my best friends in grade school. He read those books, I expect, as I did. He may have liked them. I don’t know. We never talked about them.

Lewis, grade-wise, was the smartest kid in my class. He was also the fastest swimmer in my grade. I was an envious second. Lewis was black, which meant absolutely nothing to me. But, later, it would be pointed out to me that he shattered two ugly stereotypes I then knew nothing about. Really?

We lost contact after I was shipped off to Catholic school after fifth grade. I’m sure he read both books. But in hindsight, I wonder how he or his parents and siblings reacted to the numerous racial epithets in those books.

The school superintendent’s rationale for leaving teachers out of a discussion that reportedly ran for months strains credibility.

“The decision to protect the dignity of our students seemed like a reasonable and easy one to make that didn’t require teacher input,” Michael Cary, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction, told the Duluth News Tribune. “But in terms of making sure that we select excellent novels that serve the same purpose, that definitely needs teacher feedback and their help in making that decision.”

If the decision alone was an easy one, why did the discussion take months, not minutes?

That we’re coming at this all wrong is proven by the fact that almost nobody with an opinion knows what books are on the required reading list now, nor whether they’re there because they’ve always been there or they stand the test of time and the changing nature of our population.

The English teachers do.