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Letter: Letters to the Editor Penned by WHS Students Prove Power of Education

Robin Rosen Chang said their letters demonstrate "how well these students can evaluate and respond to arguments and articulate their own views."

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

Westfield

Mike February 19, 2012 at 03:09 AM
Once again, we read a letter that attacks the messenger, does not discuss the contents of the book itself, and throws out other titles in weak ammunition. Ms. Chang demonstrates her own "anything goes" philosophy in her letter in suggesting that principles simply do not exist. What's frightening is that Ms. Chang finds it frightening that a parent is involved in her child's life. Let's create a hypothetical: If a history teacher decides to have kids read Hitler's Mein Kampf so they can compare Nazism to Democracy, would it be intolerant and closed-minded for a parent to strongly disagree with that lesson? All parental opinions regarding books given to ninth graders reflect intolerance? In the busy world we live in today, I don't think any parent wants to micromanage their child's curriculum. From what I heard, the teachers had the parents purchase the Alexie book outside of school, which would explain why they may have decided to look at the contents. Westfield students are upstanding kids and very well educated. No one has suggested otherwise. Let's get back to the real topic: the age appropriateness of the book.
J February 19, 2012 at 05:22 AM
While you may see the "real topic" as the age appropriateness of this book, it involves much more than that. Yes, the original letter which sparked the controversy expressed the author's opinions about the book's inappropriate content, but the real question was whether or not the students should be exposed to such themes. To this, the caliber of Westfield High School students is extremely relevant. These students are well educated as a result of their exposure to similar books, as they learned to maturely discuss them in a classroom setting. Additionally, why is "[throwing] out titles" a poor argument? The fact that students have learned so much from books like The Catcher in the Rye and Huckleberry Finn is evidence as to how books like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian could be extremely beneficial to a WHS student's education. Furthermore, your own throwing around of the title Mein Kampf is completely irrelevant. While I understand how in such a situation it would be appropriate for a parent to intervene, what you described is very different from the situation at hand. I am fairly certain that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian could not be considered propaganda nor could it in any way be linked to the murder of millions. What Ms. Chang has written is a well-stated opinion which complements the student letters with an adult's point of view and it is more than relevant to the topic at hand.
Amy Brummer February 19, 2012 at 01:56 PM
Excellent letter Ms. Chang. Parents like Ms. Githens and Mr. (I only read page 225) Crenshaw should stick to home schooling if they don't believe in the role of educators in public education. As a parent I am very pleased with books like this being included in my children's curriculum and applaud our teachers and administration for standing behind their choices. And Mike, clearly only an anti-semitic like you would drop Mein Kampf and Hitler into this conversation. Your point was insane.
Nemo February 19, 2012 at 09:12 PM
Ah, literary criticism in the age of Family Guy, South Park and Jersey Shore. Inspiring. The fact that Westfield is producing some well educated young people is testimony that some of the instruction in Westfield is effective. Kudos. I very much doubt that those successes can be attributed to modern pop literature. Plenty of top rate instruction happened in the world prior to the appearance of such literature. So I dare say that such reading is not critically essential. What I have NOT seen in any of the commentary on this subject is what such books add to the mix, in preference to any of a couple of thousand works of genius. What's so great about this gutter talk pop stuff? Ms Chang's commentary is a straw man argument, and a rather nasty one at that. The Githen's piece that started this kerfuffle does NOT propose banning books. An issue which our culture settled a looooong time ago. It asserts that they are lousy teaching material. An argument that I have barely even seen mentioned here or elsewhere in the Patch, much less refuted. Just in case nobody else here has noticed let me state the obvious. Our problem as a culture is NOT that we are producing generations of young people so isolated in ivory towers they cannot relate to ordinary life. Our problem is that we are forgetting the literary, artistic and philosophical foundations of our own civilization. Not to mention its ideals and aspirations. I don't see how stories of tree humping help with that.
tb2k February 19, 2012 at 09:48 PM
You have clearly not read the book if you describe it as a story of tree humping.
Evan Alberheimer February 19, 2012 at 10:32 PM
You say: "What I have NOT seen in any of the commentary on this subject is what such books add to the mix, in preference to any of a couple of thousand works of genius. What's so great about this gutter talk pop stuff?" Actually, both Brian Pollock's letter (http://westfield.patch.com/articles/whs-students-commends-teachers-for-reading-selections-in-letter) and Clara Smith's letter (http://westfield.patch.com/articles/letter-whs-junior-defends-controversial-novel) answer that.
Nemo February 19, 2012 at 11:08 PM
Evan Alberheimer: OK. I'll bite. I'll open by saying that high school students' opinion of a proper high school curriculum is in my view ... um, sort of lightweight material. But that said, I have to admit in respect to those 2 obviously sincere, smart and decent kids that they are at least trying to grapple with the issue at hand -- in very bold contrast to their elders. Brian Pollock sort of misses the boat, though I'll give him points for style and coherence. Clara Smith gets a lot closer to the heart of the issue. Obviously a good mind in the making. But she does not tell us why modern vulgar pop lit serves better to show the meaning and reality of human suffering in contrast to loads of other better written and broader stuff ... say, Victor Hugo for example. I will not write a single negative word about those two young people. Neither will I subject them to criticism on the grounds of perspective that no reasonable person could expect them to have obtained yet. I respect them. And what I read inclines me to like them. But you are going to have to roll out some heavier artillery to convince me. And let's leave out the human shields.
John Steinbeck February 19, 2012 at 11:51 PM
First of all, I would like to thank you for considering my literary work, Grapes of Wrath, central to the Western literary canon. Secondly, I'd like to say to Amy Brummer are you kidding me? In what way is Ms. Chang's letter excellent? The whole letter is such a complete tissue of empty nonsense and 3rd rate sloganeering that it would take thousands of words to give a thorough reply. But I will take a shot at it: "...the frightening implications of Ms. Githens’s thoughts and suggestions." --OK we'll ignore the mind-reading for the moment ... which suggestions? What frightening implications? We aren't told. “'the contents of many of these young adult novels deemed educational would distress any principled adult'” reflects a lack of tolerance and open-mindedness." --Ad hominem really. And more mind-reading. Why does her statement reflect anything of the sort? How does one know? We aren't told. "While Ms. Githens might believe that novels that contain expletives and references to masturbation are “perverse,” luckily not everyone sees things this way." --Why is that lucky? And did Ms. Githens ever state precisely what she thinks is perverse? "In fact, many people would disagree with her assessment of perversity and vulgarity." --Who cares? Why should we? Argument from hearsay & arbitrary speculation. Also argument from popularity. A popular opinion is not necessarily right.
John Steinbeck February 19, 2012 at 11:57 PM
Where was I? Oh yes... "Moreover, the idea that parents should micromanage public school curricula ... is misguided." --Did "micromanage" come from Ms. Githens? No. False atribution/straw man. Is Ms. Chang saying that parents shouldn't be involved? We aren't told. Misguided? In what way? "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..." --And this is just the point ... only backwards. Damn near nothing has actually been banned. The issue is all the way over on the other side. And the, again, unstated implication is that since some great books contain vulgarity, therefore books that contain vulgarity must be great. Which is of course a very basic and elementary logical failure. Some cows are brown, therefore brown things are cows. The core of the piece is a straw man argument. To wit: Ms. Githens wants to ban all books with vulgar or sexual content ... and that, because she has destructive inhumane intentions. Not that she views some of them as lousy literary teaching material (her actual point) but that she wants to ban them, all of them. So you set about attacking the straw man you have set up, without ever addressing the content of Ms. Githens' writing directly and substantively. And -- just a pet peeve of mine -- when did 'The Catcher in the Rye' become central to the western literary cannon? Did I miss a memo?
tb2k February 20, 2012 at 12:28 AM
i'm not an english teacher, but can i throw out there that this book probably hooks the kids way better than something written hundreds of years ago?
Nemo February 20, 2012 at 12:31 AM
In re. John Steinbeck: "Some cows are brown, therefore brown things are cows." Holy Aristotle Batman! Somebody call out the thought police. I think that was a contraband classical reference. Where's my Allen Ginsberg!
Steve February 20, 2012 at 03:46 AM
Is this some sort of joke? You are comparing Mein Kampf a book openly espousing and promoting ideals of racism and anti-semitism to an award winning novel about realities of teenage life? In addition, you should have confidence in your child. You act like simply giving them a book (Mein Kampf as you stated) will make them into an open racist. This is simply untrue, any parent who teachers their child morals should feel confident that they can read such a hateful book and dismiss it as such.
Alex Jeffery February 23, 2012 at 02:52 AM
I'm sorry, but I don't really understand what would be wrong with reading Mein Kampf in school...? Students must be educated on both sides of an issue, regardless of how horrible the other side may be. Though your example is ridiculously extreme, it does not, as you had hoped it would, rebut the point. Students must be educated, exploring mindsets and issues, that, though unpleasant to discuss, have extreme implications on the world that they live in.
Benji Schwartz February 25, 2012 at 04:14 AM
You are willing to call these students "lightweight material", and yet you have shown me no material that would suggest that you are above their level in intelligence. You claim you won't criticize them because they don't have the right perspective to argue back, yet your arguments are the ones that are lacking said perspective. @Steinbeck, yes this is speculation, but; I think you're the one who has no arguments. I think you're the one who lacks perspective on the issue. Intelligence and ability can come from anywhere, so the fact that these two are students does not give you the right to pass them off with condescending remarks that are made to give yourself a sense of egotism because while you cannot outwit them, you can attribute this to the fact that they are younger than you, and are thus automatically wrong. These two have proven themselves worthy of respect and worthy to be listened to. You have not. I'm going to need some "heavy artillery" from you to convince me otherwise (and the stuff you have done so far, definitely "lightweight").

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