Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Day They Came to Arrest the Book

by Nat Hentoff

Thumbs mostly up.

More than telling a story, Mr. Hentoff uses this book as a platform from which to introduce, in a manner interesting to middle through high school aged kids, the idea of censorship and book banning.  The setting is a somewhat generic Anywhere, USA, town high school, aptly named, George Mason High School.  The cast of characters includes students: Barnaby, the high school newspaper editor of Jewish descent; Gordon, an African American young man; Kate, an aspiring feminist; and several other minor characters: students, teachers, the principle, a past and present librarian, and various townspeople.

The basic story line begins with a history teacher, Mrs. Baines, juxtaposing Huckleberry Finn with readings from Alexis de Tocqueville in order to introduce her 19th century American history class.  Gordon, the African American student, is frustrated, seething would be more accurate, over the racial slurs and constant use of the "n-word" in Huckleberry Finn.  After his father demands the principle remove this book from the school entirely, Mr. Moore, the smooth talking principle tries to deal with the situation discretely.  He encounters resistance, however, from both Mrs. Baines and the new librarian, Miss Fitzgerald.  They demand the principle follow official procedure.

This leads to the school board appointing a review committee which will hold community hearings.  The committee will then approve a recommendation by vote and present it to the school board for guidance.  The school board must then hold its own open meetings and cast a vote.  Throughout this process the faculty, student body, and entire community becomes involved.  Eventually the situation ends up on national news.

Mr. Hentoff does a fairly good job of trying to portray all the various sides of the issue of censorship within a school setting.  He addresses the ideas of students being a captive audience, of schools being houses of learning, and the debate over at what age and in what way students ought to be introduced to analyzing ideas different than their own.  He addresses the idea of a restricted book shelf and students opting out of certain class materials.  He addresses teachers having autonomy within their classes.  He is a little weak, in my opinion, on parental authority and rights.

I think Mr. Hentoff did a pretty good job of spinning a compelling plot out of a civics lesson.

The characters are somewhat unevenly drawn.  The adults are developed very well.  They are often quite comical in their idiosyncrasies.  The kids are not very well developed except to tell us one or two things that might be important to them.  The author takes a couple of chapters to introduce the students, but it seemed a bit rushed.

There is one somewhat blaring irony that I can't decide if the author stuck in intentionally. I think I've decided it was an oversight, since it was mentioned, but it's irony never brought out.   At one point the kids are trying to think of an example of a book nobody could disapprove.  Kate, the budding feminist, who has jumped on the anti-Huck Finn bandwagon for it's portrayal of women's place in society, suggests Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice as a book about which nobody could complain.  Since so many of the issues in Pride and Prejudice revolve around what we might consider very restrictive roles for women in society, it somewhat surprised me.  It was either done intentionally, in order to show the blunders any strongly opinionated person might sometimes stumble into, or it was sloppy work on the part of the author and editor.

Another interesting point of view is portrayed in a conversation about a new class offering the content of which is aimed at teaching different sides of cultural issues.  The stated goal is to pacify parents who might worry that teachers are too liberal on social issues.  The list of typical issues with which conservatives might be concerned:  flat earth, forced sterilization of the poor, and the use of military might against Russia.  (This was written in 1982).  I found it interesting that forced sterilization is portrayed as a conservative issue, since in its heyday, it was quite obviously a progressive issue. I also, even as an active Conservative, don't know too may people (read: any) who believe the earth is flat.

All in all this book could be useful for teaching about political activism, the role of community and parental involvement in schools, and the obvious topic of censorship and banning of books.  But I would say that a parent would want to read this book along with a child, because of the many shades of opinion portrayed.  The book also leads to a conclusion with which all parents may not totally agree.

I myself mostly agree with the solution, but there are things within the book I would have discussed further with a student.  I didn't like the way some of the opinions were presented and the slant that was taken toward some viewpoints.