PALMER — On Wednesday, the Mat-Su Borough School District School Board voted 5-2 to remove the list of five controversial books as well as the use of New York Times curriculum as teacher resources.
The board was presented with a list of books including "The Things They Carried" by Tim O’Brien, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou, "Catch-22" by Joseph Heller, "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison and "The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. While Board President Tom Bergey" voted with members Jim Hart, Ole Larson, Ryan Ponder and Jeff Taylor to remove the books and NYT curriculum, members Sarah Welton and Kelsey Trimmer voted against the amendment. No members of the public commented on the action.
“We’ve got five books here that are labeled as controversial and they’re controversial because of words like rape and incest and sexual references and language and things that are pretty serious problems, especially in our teenage world. Is there a reason that we include books that we even label as controversial in our curriculum? I would prefer that these were gone,” said Taylor. “For us to put them in front of teenagers as part of our curriculum that’s just something I can’t, I just don't understand.”
Taylor originally questioned the use of the books that are currently part of MSBSD curriculum. The MSBSD Office of Instruction had reviewed curriculum for high school electives such as poetry, journalism, creative writing, American literature and British literature, all of which are upperclassmen level elective English courses. While these five books were selected by the Office of Instruction as controversial, they were not the most controversial book or class offered in Valley schools.
“The label of controversial is often in the eye of the beholder and that it would be hard to find books that aren’t labeled as controversial to somebody and these are the books that had literary value that were brought forward,” said Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Amy Spargo. “The next group of English electives that is coming actually contains the course that had the most public pushback for the controversial books on it’s list, and that was the bible as history and literature and we had more concerns about that being taught in our curriculum than any of the other books on this list. So again I just put that out there as evidence that what makes something controversial is really subjective and that the books on these lists were chosen for their literary value.”
Spargo went on to illustrate that through action from the board, each parent of MSBSD students is given full disclosure of the reading list for each class. Board member Welton recalled previous occurrences where parents that do not want their student reading a particular book can choose a separate book from the district’s approved reading list for their child to read. Before the discussion became an amendment that eventually passed, Board member Ole Larson proposed that the amendment receive further public input before passage.
“I don’t know if we can put this on hold or take a second look at it next week or have a little bit longer discussion on it, I’m not one to burn books don’t get me wrong, I think an open mind like Dr. Welton said is absolutely, I think we should expose our kids to great literatures as we had and in those great literatures. There are controversial issues but not specific sexual in nature type issues,” said Larson. “Why we would get into sexually explicit stuff is beyond me.”
Board member Jim Hart said that he had not read Fitzgerald’s "The Great Gatsby" since high school and had used Sparknotes to research the controversial books rather than reading them. Hart described Heller, Angelou and Fitzgerald’s works as ‘PG-13’ but said that the material written by Ellison and O’Brien were too controversial to be taught in MSBSD schools.
“If I were to read this, just the cliff notes now mind you, and If I were to read this in a professional environment at my office I would be dragged to the equal opportunity office,” said Hart. “We’re not talking about something that’s mind expanding or something that’s going to help anybody learn any better, we’re talking about things that frankly would not be something that would be acceptable in a professional environment which is what the parents expect out of the schools.”
While students have the option not to sign up for classes with controversial books and parents additionally have the option to choose a separate book from MSBSD’s approved reading list for their child, Board members felt that the lack of parent involvement would allow students to read controversial books without their parents knowing.
“I’m not saying that the parents were wrong or the families were wrong but there needs to be some opening of the mind to understand that not everybody thinks the same way and I believe that the controversial book subjects, as reviewed by parents, I think it’s beneficial to our students. I think that we might be doing a disservice to not provide that,” said Welton.
Welton went on to discuss that in 14 years of teaching entry level courses at the Mat-Su College Campus, many students have not yet been exposed to thought processes or texts from other cultures and still hold firm to the ideas instilled in them by their parents. Welton further mentioned that students who have experienced trauma may find some healing by reading about others who have had similar experiences.
“I think you're putting your head in the sand that's just my opinion. If you really truly believe that you are protecting your children, you can protect them by just saying don’t take that class and don’t be involved in the New York Times,” said Welton.
Ponder moved to remove the five controversial books and NYT teacher resources from MSBSD curriculum which was seconded by Taylor. After the amendment passed 5-2, the high school reading list passed unanimously.
** Editor's note: The original version of this story included the word ban. The books were not banned, but rather removed from curriculum.