I am writing in response to Ms. Githens’s Letter, “Parent Asks for High Standards and Return to Common Decency in Schools,” which appeared on February 15. In this letter, Ms. Githens voices her objection to the decision by some Westfield High School English teachers to include the 2007 National Book Award winner, 'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,' by Sherman Alexie, as part of their curricula.
Ms. Githens complains about “new age, graphic narratives filled with expletives” and their “potential devastation…on our children’s overall quality of learning.” She also condemns the “anything goes” philosophy she feels exists in many of our schools. Ms. Githens goes on to articulate her view that books such as 'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian'
replace literature of “higher educational merit” and her opinion that teachers should succumb to parents’ advice about education.
Several students have written letters (WHS Student Commends District for Reading Selections in Letter and Letter: WHS Junior Defends Controversial Novel) responding eloquently to Ms. Githens’s pronouncements and expressing their own perspectives on why reading books such as this one is of value. These students dispelled the notion that Alexie’s book reflects moral deterioration and emphasized how it actually encourages critical thinking and a broad and open view of the world. Their letters also demonstrate how well these students can evaluate and respond to arguments and articulate their own views. They show just how well educated Westfield students are, and I imagine our teachers had something to do with this.
What the students’ letters don’t fully address, however, is some of the frightening implications of Ms. Githens’s thoughts and suggestions. Ms. Githens’s statement that the “contents of many of these young adult novels deemed educational would distress any principled adult” reflects a lack of tolerance and open-mindedness. While Ms. Githens might believe that novels that contain expletives and references to masturbation are “perverse,” luckily not everyone sees things this way. In fact, many people would disagree with her assessment of perversity and vulgarity. Moreover, the idea that parents should micromanage public school curricula is misguided. Imagine all the literary works, many of which are central to the Western literary canon, that might have been banned had puritanical pressure won the day: 'The Grapes of Wrath' by John Steinbeck, 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' by Mark Twain, and 'The Catcher in the Rye' by J.D. Salinger, to name a few. There have been objections, as well, to vulgarity and “undesirable themes” in works by Shakespeare, Flaubert, and Nabokov!
It is definitely reasonable for parents to demand that public schools provide excellent education. However, it is completely unreasonable, unrealistic, and undesirable for parents to try to control every aspect of public education and to try to impose their individual views and preferences on the entire school system.
Robin Rosen Chang