Classic literature, Charter schools, and the Banning of Books

by Anna Blanch on July 18, 2012

I’ve been hearing some rumbling about the selection of book lists and library holdings at parent-led charter and Christian schools. What i’ve been hearing has given me pause and I’d like to offer some humble thoughts on developing curricula and making decisions about the reading material made available to students.

Let me begin by acknowledging that there’s a (practical) necessity to establish curricula and to set reading lists and buying priorities. There’s always going to be a finite amount of resources to go around and decisions need to be made and a prudent school leadership will have to establish a policy for purchasing books and materials.

The desire to develop a resource library with materials that will support teaching and will encourage the development of intellect, of moral character and of spiritual discernment.

However, I am concerned that in the midst of a desire for good, zeal will result in the effective banning of books not as a result of well developed discernment but poorly thought-out engagement with literature and a legalistic purchasing policy.

Take for example the blanket policy direction that no wizardry is allowed.

While this seems to accord with Leviticus 19:31  and Isaiah 8:1 which specifically warn against mediums and those who speak with the dead, what troubles me is the way in which this policy is then applied. Parent lead boards should be involved in the devleopment of purchasing policies for their schools and the rubric they use is of course up to them, but I would strongly encourage the consistent application of such policies, lest in failing to apply them they fall down into farce.

In particular, it troubles me to hear that although such policies as the example above are applied, or that of the exclusion of all books which deal with sin unless it is merely to point out that it is wrong (and does not indulge in description), are NOT applicable to “classic literature”

And here’s where I start to have a problem:

The alchemy and sorcery in Shakespeare is okay and swapping genders for dramatic effect is apparently not an issue, and the bawdiness of Shakespeare’s language is widely regarded as crude at points….

It is the inconsistency that I have a problem with (even if I’d want them to more rigorously lay out good reasons for their purchasing conditions) almost more than anything else.

As a scholar of Victorian literature I’m well familiar with the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll of the “classic works” of the nineteenth century. Dorian Grey is an extended reflection on the sin of pride and vanity and borders on the grotesque, The Great Gatsby is hardly morally uplifting.

Please also understand what I’m not saying. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have students read Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde etc, but that you are kidding yourself if by establishing a content rubric that doesn’t apply to classic texts you think you’re creating a “better” environment for students. Indeed, this is a poor excuse for missing an opportunity to teach discernment and perhaps just as importantly, how to read well. To teach students what it means to live (holistically) a “good life.”

A good life, of course, (as Nesbit says) is not all about being good.

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