Virginia Regulatory Town Hall
Department of Education
State Board of Education
Regulations Governing Local School Boards and School Divisions [8 VAC 20 ‑ 720]
Action Amendments Regarding Use of Controversial or Sensitive Instructional Materials
Comment Period Ended on 1/15/2014
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12/16/13  2:04 pm
Commenter: Valerie Egger, Loudoun County High School

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

In college, a professor told my freshmen literature class, “we read the great authors because their stories are molded by pain. If we read things written by college freshmen, they would have no pain, no substance. They’d be about how you miss your kitty cat or how difficult it is adjusting to dorm life. There would be no true pain, no substance, and nothing to be learned.”

He was right. Great literature is greatly unpleasant, and this is how literature achieves its power.

My students have asked me time and again, “Why don’t we read pleasant stories? Like where no one dies and everyone is happy.” What could be learned from such stories? What problem, pain, or injustice would kindle the spark of critical thinking if there were nothing bad happening? Edison did not invent the light bulb because he lived in a well-lit world.

It is from unpleasantness that humans forge forward. And the literature we teach is full of unpleasantness. Now, an issue is brought forth that would require teachers to “warn” parents of “sensitive” material so that parents could prevent their children from reading anything unsavory and request an alternate assignment. This mandate would needlessly alarm parents and would put great works of literature at risk.

It is this type of white-washing that the great works of literature warn us against. In fact, I’m having trouble thinking of any novel in the curriculum of any high school in which I’ve taught that does not contain “sensitive” material of one sort or another. Asking teachers to warn parents of it seems almost farcical.

Most any Shakespeare play contains lewd jokes and puns (for those able to understand them). Should we warn parents against all works of The Bard, all the human truths and struggles of his works, just because of a few lines of pun?

The Grapes of Wrath provides a beautiful, poetic account of the struggle of individuals against a behemoth of a system, questioning the function and efficacy of government and business. It’s a work that opens students’ minds to the gray area of any policy or action, showing actual human consequences of decisions made in board rooms or at legislators’ desks, hopefully preparing students to make better decisions when they become adults. Should we scare parents away by warning them that the book contains a disturbing scene involving a still-born corpse floating down a river, or a scene in which a woman breast-feeds a starving old man? It doesn’t get much more sensitive than that.

1984 is a book that warns against dictatorships and the result of allowing the powers-that-be to censor history, literature, and thought. It’s a miserable, dangerous, white-washed world meant to stifle an individual’s ability and willingness to think and act independently. The novel is a dire warning to inspire readers to cling to individual freedoms and free thought. Should we warn parents against the book because it contains a Department of Pornography that produces entertainment for the lower class? Prostitution? A promiscuous young woman who has sex as her method of rebelling against oppression? Nearly the entire third section of the book details the main character’s torture as he is forcefully required to conform even his thoughts to the will of The Party. The sensitive and unpleasant content in the novel pushes students to question the nature of power and the human spirit. It provides a frightening truth about how people like Hitler have been able to sway so many to their malicious wills.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a freedom-loving, anti-racism novel contains over 200 uses of the “n-word.” Should we warn parents against this classic and the values it instills because of archaic language use and racist characters (who are always made out to be the bad guys, whom we wouldn’t want to emulate)?

Oedipus Rex, the seminal work of tragedy from 400 B.C., contains an incestuous marriage, parricide, suicide, and the graphic gouging out of one’s own eyes. Should we warn parents against such an important work, one that establishes the basis for all tragic heroes that follow? The terror caused by such sensitive material provides the cleansing fear—the catharsis—that was the purpose of the work. Difficult to replicate with a less sensitive story. Dr. Seuss, perhaps?

Their Eyes Were Watching God uses beautiful, poetic, and suggestive language to describe a pear tree in such a way that it becomes a metaphorical orgasm, signaling the main character’s entrance into adulthood. Should we warn parents away from this book, renowned for its figurative language and sociological and historical relevance, a book in which the protagonist seeks fulfillment in life against a society that promises her none?

The Great Gatsby shows the corruption and danger of the get-rich-quick mentality of life in the Roaring Twenties. Shall we encourage parents to deprive their children of this experience because of the drinking, affairs, drunk driving, violence, and murder portrayed in the book?

Tess of the D’Urbervilles? Rape and murder.

The Scarlet Letter? Adultery.

Romeo and Juliet? Murder, elopement, and suicide.

How long the list of sensitive works will become!

The proposed legislation will place an onerous burden on teachers and will alarm parents for no reason. Parents are already provided a syllabus that includes a list of works to be studied each year. With the prevalence of Google, Wikipedia, and SparkNotes, we can trust that parents will be able to research the books themselves and discuss any issues or concerns with their children’s teachers. School boards, principals, and department chairs all ensure that books approved for use in the classroom align with Virginia Standards of Learning and contain educational relevance and literary merit. Teachers are required to attend training and gain licensure (and relicensure) to ensure they are qualified to appropriately teach sensitive materials. These checks are already in place for a reason. Syllabi are already distributed to inform parents of the works to be studied. Asking teachers to post warnings of any “sensitive” material is like asking the justice system to revert to a mentality of “guilty until proven innocent.”

Author Ray Bradbury said, “You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” His dystopian Fahrenheit 451 portrays a society that does not allow books, creating a spineless, thoughtless culture. Perhaps Bradbury was right, though. Maybe destroying a culture is easier than burning books. We just have to find more ways to encourage people to stop reading them.  

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