Tuesday, August 16, 2011

"Slaughterhouse Five"...nostalgia from Ken Paulson

Kurt Vonnegut

"'Slaughterhouse Five' ban should make school blush"


Ken Paulson

August 15th, 2011


It's rare that book banning makes me nostalgic.

Yet the news last month that the Republic, Mo., school board banned Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five brought me back to 1969, the year the book was published and my freshman year in high school.

Slaughterhouse Five was the cool new book and, along with the 1966 republication of The Hobbit, was destined to be seen under the arms of high school students everywhere. As a 15-year-old, I found the book to be very challenging; it explored difficult concepts such as free will and fate in an unconventional narrative. Forty-two years later, I still remember it as a thought-provoking and powerful novel.

Wesley Scroggins, a Republic resident and professor at Missouri State University, saw the book differently, and urged the school board to ban Slaughterhouse Five along with Sarah Ockler's Twenty Boy Summer and Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak. In a column for the Springfield News-Leader headlined "Filthy books demeaning to Republic education," he wrote: "This is a book that contains so much profane language, it would make a sailor blush with shame. The 'F-word' is plastered on almost every other page. The content ranges from naked men and women in cages together so that others can watch them having sex to God telling people that they better not mess with his loser, bum of a son, named Jesus Christ."

Scroggins' stance raises a number of important questions. First of all, do sailors still blush?

Second, in a society in which movies rated for a high school audience include extensive profanity and violence, and where three of the top 10-selling songs featured the F-word in their titles, how can coarse language in a book published the year we first set foot on the moon be considered a threat? What's next? Louie, Louie?

The literary merits of Slaughterhouse Five are clear. The novel was widely praised. Time magazine calls Slaughterhouse Five one of the 100 best contemporary novels in the English language. In its initial review in 1969, the magazine said, "Vonnegut has a forbearing, thoughtful sense of history, and he is working here — as in all his books taken together — on a vast, loosely linked metaphorical mosaic that portrays the condition of man."

Of course, the Republic school board is not the first to ban the book. In fact, it was one of the books at the heart of a pivotal U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1982 on the removal of books from public school libraries. In Island Trees School District v. Pico, a Levittown, N.Y., school board removed several books from the high school and middle school libraries because they were "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy." The U.S. Supreme Court held that while school boards have considerable discretion in setting a curriculum, students have a First Amendment right to access information in the school library. Once a book is on the shelves, board members can't remove it just because they disagree with the ideas it puts forth.

Did the Republic school board violate the Constitution? It depends. The board kept Speak in the classroom, banned Twenty Boy Summer and jettisoned Slaughterhouse Five because of its crude language and adult themes, according to the News-Leader. Scroggins had complained about both profanity and the story Vonnegut told. The board could target the former, but not the latter.

Battles over books extend well beyond Republic, Mo. In recent months:

•Administrators at Franklin Central High School near Indianapolis confiscated Nobel Prize Winner Toni Morrison's novel Song of Solomon from 50 juniors after a parent complained about profanity, sexual content and insulting language. The book was later reinstated.

•The Cheatham County, Tenn., school district restricted access to an anthology that excerpted Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir, by Paul Monette, after a middle-school parent filed a complaint.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich, was removed from a personal finance course by the Bedford, N.H., school district after two parents complained that it was anti-capitalist and anti-Christian.

•And in a sign that book controversies know no age limit, the Channelview, Texas, Independent School District removed the Adventures of Super Diaper Baby, by Dav Pilkey, from its grade schools because of a reference to "poo-poo head."

Challenges to books in schools are still prevalent enough that the American Library Association and a coalition of book and anti-censorship organizations continue to hold Banned Books Week (this Sept. 24-Oct. 1). The ALA says books in schools and libraries were challenged 348 times last year.

Legal issues aside, a school board that bans a widely respected book from high schools because of concerns about coarse language sends some unfortunate signals. It's in effect saying it doesn't trust the principal, teachers or librarians to make sound decisions concerning the school's curriculum. And it doesn't see its students as the young adults they are, with inherent rights and the ability to grasp important ideas and challenging concepts, despite the presence of profanity.

The irony is that today's high schools are full of students engaged with video games and engulfed by social media. Why would we ever build a barrier to reading a book?

[Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center, is a former editor of USA TODAY and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.]

Book censorship battles continue

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