DELMAR- I am writing to share my views on a recent petition launched by a Bethlehem Central School District parent that objects to the High School English curriculum and demands that students be permitted to be assigned “alternative texts.” The petition cites as objectionable Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; an earlier version also objected to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The petition asserts that students “should not have to choose between doing their required reading and maintaining their religious or moral values.” One comment in support of the petition states, “I oppose having my child read a required book out loud and having to say the Lord’s name in vain.”
As a parent of Bethlehem Central School District students and as a college professor of English literature, I am made uneasy by this demand and commend the school district’s decision not to accede to it. Such a demand places an unreasonable burden on teachers to build lesson plans around an indeterminate number of alternative texts that meet with the approval of various parents. It also demands parental veto power over one of the most important functions of education: namely, exposure to multiple points of view encouraging critical thought, reflection, and discourse about one’s own beliefs and values and those of others.
A scan of lists of frequently challenged and banned books compiled by the American Library Association discloses a disproportionate number of texts by Black and Indigenous writers, including Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and Sherman Alexie, one of the authors challenged by this petition. This is no doubt in part because many Black and Indigenous writers incorporate racist language in texts to realistically depict racism in society. In April 2020, CNN reported that 8 of the top 10 books challenged by parents the previous year contained LGBTQ content or characters.
Although a writer of color is singled out in this petition, I do not believe this complaint is motivated by a specific desire to silence marginalized voices. Nevertheless, I do believe it is a step in that direction when parents demand alternative texts for their students based on subjective notions of what discourses, ideologies, and values count as “offensive.”
As a parent myself, I understand the importance of being able to instill your values in your children. However, the study of literature should not be about encountering only texts that confirm the validity of views and values one already unquestioningly holds as true or inoffensive. Literature, if it has any value at all, must challenge, provoke, and unsettle. As Emerson wrote, “People wish to be settled,” but “only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”