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    Brave new book banning

    When is a book banned? Does it have to be burned, or does "suspension" amount to the same thing? That's part of the debate over whether Seattle Public Schools should drop "Brave New World."

    A 15th century painting of books being tested by fire to determine which ones contained truth.

    A 15th century painting of books being tested by fire to determine which ones contained truth. Pedro Berreguete/Wikimedia Commons

    On KUOW this past week, the Friday news roundtable took up the topic of a proposed "suspension" in Seattle Schools of the book Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. The members of the news panel, consisting of me, Joni Balter of the Seattle Times and Eli Sanders of The Stranger, were quick to call the ban absurd. I would expect no less from any panel of journalists. It's like poking a stick in a bee hive.

    Calling to give her perspective on the situation was Melissa Westbrook, who writes regularly on the Save Seattle Schools blog. She said that the effort was not a ban, but an attempt to suspend the book from the district's high school curriculum until teachers received better instruction on how to teach the book. This was an issue of "professional development."(How come every schools debate turns into how to spend more money teaching teachers to be teachers? Aren't they supposed to know this stuff when they're hired?)

    The panel took exception to Westbrook's characterization; she objected, and later wrote about the radio debate on the blog. She began by stating categorically that no "ban" was being requested: "What this situation in Seattle Public Schools and its use of Brave New World is NOT about is banning a book. That one word is so loaded and has been used over and over and it's just not true." Her view: it's a "suspension," not a ban.

    I said on air that this incident was a case of political correctness getting a hearing. Westbrook says no, anyone can follow the proper steps to challenge books in the district, and that was being done in this case. In other words, anyone with an objection has the right to a hearing, PC or not PC. True, but my point was that the objection to Brave New World in this case is based on complaints by a Native American student and her mother who were offended by references Huxley made to characters who live on reservations as "savages." And this gets to the heart of the offense. Let's turn to a story by KIRO FM's Linda Thomas:

    Sarah Sense-Wilson's daughter was required to read the novel for a class at Nathan Hale. She is Native American, and her heart started to sink as she turned the pages to find more than 30 references to "savage natives."

    "She was very upset and she said, 'Mom I need to tell you something, but I don’t want you to get mad. There’s a book I have to read in my class and it portrays Indian people as being savages and living on reservations,'" Sense-Wilson says.

    She tried to read the book for herself.

    "I was outraged when I read through the book. I had to keep putting it down because it was so hurtful," says Sense-Wilson. "It was traumatizing to read how Indian people were being depicted."

    The text has a "high volume of racially offensive derogatory language and misinformation on Native Americans. In addition to the inaccurate imagery, and stereotype views, the text lacks literary value which is relevant to today’s contemporary multicultural society," she wrote in a complaint earlier this year to Nathan Hale and district administrators....

    The chair of the language arts department, Shannon Conner, defended the merits of the book calling it a "superb warning book about our future. Huxley cautions his future readers from becoming too reliant on, and compliant with, technology." But at the same time, the high school apologized and determined that the "cultural insensitivity embedded in this book makes it an inappropriate choice as a central text in our 10th grade curriculum."

    They are no longer using the book. Sense-Wilson says she’s "proud of" the way Nathan Hale has responded.

    So, Nathan Hale has dropped the book under pressure and for reasons of racial insensitivity, "apologizing" for teaching it in the first place. Now mother and child hope the district will see the light system-wide and ban the book until anyone who might choose to teach it is properly educated, or re-educated.

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    Posted Tue, Nov 23, 6:27 a.m. Inappropriate


    I had to read the book in 1965, 8th grade. I was told to draw my own conclusions… I realized that “something for nothing isn’t free.” An engineered utopia doesn’t work. The story had much to do with thought control, and, control of other’s lives.

    All this sounds like the Seattle school district. I assume that Fahrenheit 451 will be banned soon, so students don’t realize what the district is doing to their brains and thinking ability. Without books of different thoughts and styles of writing, we become dunces. But, that is the point in Brave New World. “Don’t turn into a dunce by allowing others to control your thoughts.” Thank you Sister Robert Clare, I remember.

    Posted Tue, Nov 23, 8:38 a.m. Inappropriate

    if a student objected to the characterization of native americans as savages i would have that student study the ways of these natives prior to being put on reses by far more efficient and deadlier European savages. that way we'd be speaking a bit of truth and addressing the subject head-on. http://www.facebook.com/mike.roloff1?ref=name#!/


    Posted Tue, Nov 23, 9:09 a.m. Inappropriate

    Next up: Incompetent, corrupt bureaucrats demand the "suspension" of Atlas Shrugged because it casts aspersions on their chosen profession.

    That is, if it isn't banned already.


    Posted Tue, Nov 23, 9:46 a.m. Inappropriate

    This whole incident illustrates a much larger problem in how school curriculum is constructed. We rely too heavily on the "squeaky wheel" model.

    You know the adage, the squeaky wheel gets replaced. In other words, whoever complains the loudest gets his or her views incorporated into the curriculum.

    The problem is much more widespread than choices of books for English classes. For math curriculum, the choice of textbook has been the subject of a ferocious debate known as the "math wars", in which advocates of both traditionalist and discovery viewpoints engage in shouting matches over which to teach. There was even a lawsuit, filed by Cliff Mass, which forced the Seattle School Board to revisit its choice of a discovery textbook. Although I generally side with the traditionalists (within reason) in this debate, I think their heavy-handed tactics, such as lawsuits, do not result in the best curriculum.

    The worst is the way that history textbooks are written and chosen. Here we have various minority groups who want to ensure that their group is portrayed to their liking, conservative groups who want anything that seems unpatriotic to be censored, and other interest groups at work. The result is the uninspiring history books that we all endured in school.

    We could go on--the difficulty in saying anything about religion in the classroom, the flap over An Inconvenient Truth in Federal Way--but I think I've made my point. I actually think that public input into school curriculum is very important, and we have elected school boards for a good reason. But there really needs to be some insulation in the process so that teachers and school boards can make decisions without being overwhelmed by a vocal minority.

    Posted Tue, Nov 23, 10:07 a.m. Inappropriate

    Doesn’t anyone else think that Huxley used the term “savages” to describe the people that are more human than the characters from the technological society in Brave New World? That this was a pointed satire? So in effect, by allowing this “suspension” demanded by a parent who evidently cant judge a literary work by anything other than a knee-jerk reaction, we are allowing someone who is empirically incapable of literary criticism to dictate literary curriculum.

    We seem to have confused the terms “to educate” and “to train”. ”Suspending” Brave New World ensures that we can’t educate our children. Finding a “suitable” novel that reinforces our prejudices, regardless of how “noble” we may think those prejudices to be, ensures that our children will be well trained.

    I thought we were to educate children, and train animals. Brave New World indeed.

    Posted Tue, Nov 23, 12:25 p.m. Inappropriate

    I agree with Mr. St Clair. The problem with both the student and the parent is that they seem to be conditioned above all else to see themselves as victims and therefore they can't see past that to perceive the irony in the writing. This mindset is resulting in a society of dullards who can't comprehend anything not viewed through the optic of their victimhood. It bodes not well for culture.


    Posted Tue, Nov 23, 1:37 p.m. Inappropriate

    Huxley, Faulkner and Clemens banned for their language; Hemingway and Graves banned for their views of women; Nin banned for her sexuality; Orwell banned for his iconoclasm; Mor banned for her Gaean consciousness; Marx, Engels, Trotsky and Lenin banned as enemies of capitalism; the bans themselves now dishonestly disguised as "suspensions" (an obvious tactic to further the banishment of linguistic precision): welcome to Moron Nation, where "intellectual" is already synonymous with "traitor" and reading itself will soon be proclaimed a subversive act.

    Posted Tue, Nov 23, 4:47 p.m. Inappropriate

    Reading a subversive act. Bring it on! That is my style of subversion. My folks have been gone a while which says something about my age but it occurs to me I owe them thanks for never telling me I couldn't read something (including the cheerios' box) The reading in 1950s' HS was pretty drab except maybe the Peyton Place floating around study hall. Words change, meanings change and what ever ol' Huxley said 50 years ago was probably the way it was and we should learn and be thankful for the changes and hopefully improvements in our attitudes towards different people, animals, food or what ever. Thank god we don't eat Lutefisk anymore. So learn to appreciate

    Posted Tue, Nov 23, 4:49 p.m. Inappropriate

    Huckleberry Finn is still OK by the Seattle Public Schools, as are 1984, Animal Farm, and The Sound and the Fury — for now.


    But yes, Scott St. Clair's distinction between educating and training is spot on. To be honest, we ought to be doing both — but we certainly can't abandon the former in favor of the latter, which is the direction in which a lot of people, given the economy, seem to want things to go. If we do that, we will regret it.

    By the way, this gives me pause:

    "12th grade is not a graduation requirement. The list of suggested titles below have been reviewed and recommended by the Language Arts Materials Adoption should Language Arts 12 become a graduation requirement."

    Does this mean one can graduate from the Seattle Public Schools without taking a single English class as a senior?

    Posted Tue, Nov 23, 5:12 p.m. Inappropriate

    Recent polling has indicated that much of the hostility expressed by Tea Party types is not directed to the wealthy, but to the educated. And from the other end of the spectrum, we are battered by those who are desperate not to "offend" anyone. Who said being educated was supposed to be easy or without some rough spots where the student really needs to start reading between the lines? BTW, someone mentioned that Atlas Shrugged may already have been banned. I hope so, not for it's alleged philospohy but because it is such a big, fat and ponderous bore of a novel.


    Posted Tue, Nov 23, 5:24 p.m. Inappropriate

    What a shame that no one encouraged that student to write the best, most persuasive paper she could write, arguing whatever she wanted to say about Brave New World. Now that would be something to be proud of!

    Posted Tue, Nov 23, 6:39 p.m. Inappropriate

    Yarrow, I have to point out that the act of appeal through the bureaucracy was undoubtedly a highly educational experience, and she has reached a far larger audience than a term paper.

    I don't consider it a ban, any more than the reading list is required reading. Ballard is still teaching the book, albeit perhaps more thoughtfully. And lots of people are reading it, talking about it, and thinking about how it might strike a Native American teen. None of these are bad things. Give these people a break until you've walked in their shoes.


    Posted Tue, Nov 23, 7:59 p.m. Inappropriate

    I know the librarian at Nathan Hale. The book is not banned. It is still in the library and she would fight tooth and nail to keep it there. It has been placed on the list of books that the kids read in groups to discuss with each other rather than on the read alone list.

    It amazes me that not one single reporter called her to get the true story of how Nathan Hale is handling this. As a parent of a student, I also received an email about the situation saying pretty much the same thing.

    I no longer have the email but perhaps another parent does. This is moutain being made out of molehill.


    Posted Tue, Nov 23, 8:02 p.m. Inappropriate

    Atlas Shrugged should be banned as crappy writing.


    Posted Tue, Nov 23, 9:52 p.m. Inappropriate

    @eyesopen--I think you're right that the student is having an educational experience in speaking up and having her concerns heard. And maybe I'm being critical without knowing the facts. But in general I stand by the idea that we should teach our kids to respond creatively and thoughtfully to ideas they dislike--not demand that those ideas be hidden from them. I think that any young woman who's got enough gumption to object to Brave New World is more than equal to the task of writing her own rebuttal to the ideas that offend her. Doesn't it border on patronization to imagine that someone like her needs to be protected from reading a book? I think what kids need is to be encouraged to see that they're powerful enough to speak up, and that they can learn to do something difficult--which Aldous Huxley learned how to do, whether you like him or hate him--which is to figure out what you think, and then communicate it effectively and persuasively to other people.

    I think it's *always* a mistake to try to resolve this kind of controversy by removing books from the reading lists. Any book worth reading is capable of offending many people for excellent reasons. But would kids be better educated if they didn't have to read Mark Twain, Sherman Alexie, Toni Morrison, Shakespeare, or any other writer whose works are valuable because they reflect the real, messy, world we live in?

    Posted Wed, Nov 24, 1:43 p.m. Inappropriate

    Thanks all for a good Crosscut excursion in thought.
    In making use of late-night government TV to lull the mind to sleep, one comes across School Board meetings. Following several school administrations this way, I find it easy to believe that the Board review of this matter flamed the widespread misinformation, as opposed to helping all of us growing wiser because of the occasion.

    Which gets me to making a modest proposal that future proposals of this nature be fleshed out first on Crosscut— students joining in, even School Board members who could keep themselves in the know yet keep Board time free for crucial things.

    In my day, beginning early in grade school all West Seattle students studied their community's special connection to Seattle's history, knew full well the import of West Seattle High's Potlatch day, and were more than proud to become (and forever remain) West Seattle Indians. The loss of neighborhood schools changed all that. The crucial matter for this School Board is to see their way clearly past that well-meaning diversion to a quality education and a meaningful life for all of Seattle's children.


    Posted Sat, Nov 27, 11:23 p.m. Inappropriate

    Hi, I'm Melissa Westbrook and I write, as Knute says, for Save Seattle Schools blog. What he also left out is that I went to the hearing on this matter, read all the relevant documentation and know this district well. Did Knute or Joni or Eli or Marcie? No, and that day they were pundits, not journalists. Because a journalist wants to make sure they have the facts.

    There is not ban on any book and that word was not used by the student's parent nor the teachers nor the district. It is not a ban to suspend the use of the book until both the teachers and the district (and both say this is true) can provide context (time written, culture at the time, use of satire, metaphor, etc).

    To provide context is NOT to tell the students what the book is about OR how to think of it. And, as another commenter stated (and again, this is true), the book is available in the library. Any student at any time can read and write a book report on it. That's not a ban. There are 74 other books on the reading list.

    What is hilarious is that there are so many people who keep saying, "Why do we have to teach the teachers to teach?" Teaching is not a static profession. Teachers, at all grade levels, have professional development provided to them. Some of it is because our district loves to throw out new ways of testing and alignment of curriculum. Sorry but teachers can't turn on a dime or a whim. So they need help to understand what is being asked of them. Likewise, some books are more challenging that others. And especially since the district has now aligned the Language Arts curriculum and is now working on science and social studies, teachers again need the help.

    In case you didn't know, this is where many tax dollars in education go. It is part of the crux of the new ed reform to supporting teachers in classrooms. That some journalists seem to think this is unnecessary means they just don't know what they are talking about. I suggest they call the Superintendent if they are confused or in a fog.

    I had called in NOT to give my opinion. I called in to flesh out the story since I knew most of the background. I got jumped on 2 sentences in. Marcie Sillman decided to fan the flames and immediately went to Nazi Germany and book burning. It was just ridiculous except of course suddenly they had a ton of phone calls and e-mails.

    Nothing like a good book burning to wake the masses.

    You should know better, Knute.


    Posted Tue, Nov 30, 1:35 p.m. Inappropriate

    "He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."

    This passage from the Declaration of Independence is offensive to me. I demand all school districts in the Union "suspend" reading and discussing this document "until teachers received better instruction on how to teach".


    Posted Tue, Nov 30, 2:40 p.m. Inappropriate

    On You Tube, you can find a fascinating Mike Wallace interview with Aldous Huxley from 1958 in which Huxley talks about trouble just around the corner. George Orwell, he said, envisioned a dictatorship of terror, but he sees one of manufactured bliss where man will "actually love his slavery." The whole half-hour, divided into three parts, is worth watching, but part 2 (linked below) is where he outlines how his Brave New World will come to be.


    Posted Tue, Nov 30, 4:04 p.m. Inappropriate

    @ Melissa Westbrook:
    Learning about the "context (time written, culture at the time, use of satire, metaphor, etc)" of a book before one teaches it does not require that a book be "suspended" from required classroom syllabi until special teacher-training sessions are held. Reliable Internet resources are available for easy access to this kind of context (the YouTube interview Knute cites above would be a fine place to start). Conversations among teachers in a department about a book are useful, too: "One of my kids thinks Huxley shouldn't have used the word savages. What would you say to a student who thought that?" In schools where these conversations happen, every day is a professional development opportunity.

    As far as school- and district-supported, more formal professional development goes, my 30+ years of experience as an English teacher showed me that the truly useful kinds develop knowledge, skills, and strategies that can be applied to teaching all kinds of literature. Anyway, there's not enough time or money for sessions on each book.

    More central to Knute's story are other questions: "How do I respond to books with ideas or language that make me uncomfortable - put them away until I can somehow create a place for them in my comfort zone, or use them to challenge my comfortable assumptions, painful though that may be?" "What does my response teach others in my life, including children?" (a question I should ask every day if I'm a parent or a teacher.)

    A widely read Black writer once said he was very glad that he first encountered the n-word in a book: reading "Huck Finn" in an English class (where the teacher was not providing much in the way of context). It gave his imagination quiet preparation for possible real-life encounters, he said, and helped him realize more fully the person he truly was.

    Posted Sat, Dec 11, 7:18 a.m. Inappropriate

    It would be nice if the discussion of this situation stuck to the actual facts of the situation. Mr. Berger didn't know the facts before he spoke on the radio and it appears that he still does not know the facts - particularly if he is relying on media reports of the situation, none of which, outside of those by Phyllis Fletcher on KUOW, have been accurate.

    It is abundantly clear that none of those leaving comments here, other than Melissa Westbrook, have any first-hand knowledge of the situation either.

    I was at the hearing. I have read the statements submitted to the Board and the letter of apology from Dr. Hudson. I assure you that this whole thing has been grossly misrepresented.

    The real problem that concerns Ms Westbrook, and is a great concern to me, is the way that misinformation about this situation was spread by media outlets, including this one, that are presumed to be responsible and reliable.

    Mr. Berger didn't speak responsibly on the radio and he has not written responsibly here. Mr. Berger has not spoken with any of the parties involved nor has he read the source documents. He simply has not done his job as a journalist and nothing he says or writes about this situation is from an informed perspective. He should be ignored.

    Is this the lowly state to which journalism has fallen? Sad.


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