THURSDAY, OCTOBER 28, 2021
Experts predict the end: Is the American experiment, such as it has been and such as it is, possibly nearing its end?
Is the experiment already over? Have an array of "silent secessions" already taken place?
Based on interviews with major experts, we'd be inclined to say yes, yes and yes.
Regarding our broken public discourse, we'd also be inclined to say this: "It's all tribal Storyline now."
Regarding the role of mandated narrative within our own highly self-assured tribe, we'd say the current pseudo-discussion concerning the award-winning novel, Beloved, is a striking case in point.
At times like these, is our highly self-impressed tribe able to be fair and balanced concerning major points of debate?
We'd be strongly inclined to say no. Disconsolate experts glumly insist that this unfortunate state of affairs stems from one of the deeply flawed ways our human brains are wired. This dates to the war of all against all, way back in prehistory!
If want to be marginally fair, we liberals should perhaps acknowledge one basic point. The pseudo-discussion about Beloved doesn't seem to involve anyone's view concerning its literary merit.
At its base, the pseudo-discussion doesn't involve anyone's judgment concerning that point. At its base, the pseudo-discussion concerns these different questions:
Is Beloved an appropriate choice for a high school literature class?
Much more specifically, should parents be notified about Beloved's contents before the book is taught? Also, should parents be permitted to have their children opt out of instruction concerning the award-winning book?
As we noted yesterday, the roots of the current pseudo-discussion track back to 2012. At that time, a parent in Fairfax County, Virginia objected to the inclusion of Beloved in her son's high school literature curriculum.
Six months later, the Washington Post published a news report about the ongoing dispute. The news report started as shown below.
Warning! The opening sentence in this news report may have been perhaps a bit misleading:
SHAPIRO (2/7/13): The book Laura Murphy wants removed from Fairfax County classrooms is considered a modern American classic. It is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a masterpiece of fiction whose author’s 1993 Nobel Prize in literature citation said that she, “in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
But Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Murphy said, depicts scenes of bestiality, gang rape and an infant’s gruesome murder, content she believes could be too intense for teenage readers.
“It’s not about the author or the awards,” said Murphy, a mother of four whose eldest son had nightmares after reading “Beloved” for his senior-year Advanced Placement English class. “It’s about the content.”
The Fairfax County School Board voted Thursday against hearing Murphy’s challenge, but she vowed to continue her quest. She said she plans to take her complaint to the Virginia Board of Education, where she will lobby for policies that will give parents more control over what their children read in class.
It's true! Without any question, Beloved is "considered a modern American classic." And not only that:
Beloved did win the Pulitzer Prize (in 1988). In 1993, its author was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.
That said, did Laura Murphy, the parent in question, really "want [Beloved] removed from Fairfax County classrooms?"
In a sense, but not as such! As T. Rees Shapiro explained later on in his report, Murphy's actual request was a bit more limited.
What was Murphy actually seeking? According to Shapiro's report, Murphy was actually "seeking to have Beloved banned until new policies are adopted for books assigned for class that might have objectionable material."
What new policies did Murphy have in mind? At the very end of his full-length report, Shapiro finally explained:
SHAPIRO: Murphy’s challenge reached the school board in late December. In a 6-2 vote announced Thursday, the board decided against hearing Murphy’s case and upheld Superintendent Jack D. Dale’s decision to retain “Beloved” in the AP English curriculum.
Currently, students can opt out of books assigned in class that they find uncomfortable to read. But the policy should be stricter for books with mature themes, Murphy argues.
She said she contacted the state Board of Education and is pursuing a policy similar to what is in place for the state’s Family Life Education curriculum, in which topics such as rape and molestation are discussed. In those classes, state policy allows for parents to receive notice of certain class topics. Parents also can remove their children from the program.
“School policies related to sensitive topics should be the same,” regardless of the class subject, Murphy said. “Clearly a double standard exists, and it should be consistent across all academic disciplines.”
That was the end of the news report. Readers were finally allowed to know what Murphy was recommending.
As it turned out, Murphy was recommending that parents should be notified about the contents of certain novels, and that they should be allowed to remove their children from instruction in some such books.
You might agree with that proposal, or then again you might not. But in those days, readers were at least allowed to know what Murphy was proposing, even if they had to read all the way to the end of a news report which may have misled then a tad in its opening sentence.
Was there something crazy about Murphy's proposal? We'd say the answer is no. Others may disagree.
That said, the Fairfax County school board could hardly say that Murphy's proposal was crazy, nuts, cuckoo or daft. Earlier in his report, Shapiro had noted this:
SHAPIRO: Fairfax County schools in certain cases have limited books for distribution only to older students, but it has never banned a book outright. According to records, the School Board has reviewed just 19 books since 1983.
If teachers wish to show excerpts from an R-rated movie in class, such as the 1998 film adaptation of “Beloved,” starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover, they must notify families two weeks ahead and receive written permission from parents. The school system uses content filters to monitor what students can access on the Internet. But for books, teachers don’t need to give notice.
Intentionally or otherwise, was Shapiro still floating the idea that Murphy wanted to "ban the book outright?" We've reported, you can decide!
At any rate, according to the school board's rules, parents had to be notified before a teacher showed the film Beloved, but no such rule obtained for the book.
Perhaps there should be no such rules at all. But on its face, Murphy was simply proposing that the board adopt a uniform policy regarding movies and books.
In our view, we don't think there was anything crazy about what Murphy proposed. (As we noted yesterday, we have no view about the suitability of Beloved for a high school literature class, in large part because we've never read it.)
Having said these things, we'll say one thing more.
We think parents of public school students should be treated with respect. We hold that view even if the parents are Others or are believed to belong to the lesser breed!
We taught fifth graders for seven years in the Baltimore City Schools (with two more years teaching junior high math). Not being completely stupid at that early date, we understood a basic fact:
The delightful children in our classes were connected to their parents, their grandparents and their guardians in a way they weren't connected to us. In our view, that basic fact should be respected and understood, even if the parent in question turns out to be one of Them!
In this highly tribalized time, our tribe has moved beyond such time-honored understandings. Tomorrow, we'll show you what we mean by that. Today, we note one additional point:
In Shapiro's report, he seemed to indicate the source of Murphy's concern about Beloved. He mentioned Beloved's "scenes of bestiality" in his own opening paragraph. Later, he quoted Murphy:
SHAPIRO: School officials point out that AP English is a college-level class that often involves discussions of adult topics.
“To me, mature references means slavery or the Holocaust,” Laura Murphy said. “I’m not thinking my kid is going to be reading a book with bestiality.”
Tomorrow: Lerer, Charles, Bump, Blow and Petri oh my! According to despondent experts, the experiment is nearing its end