Alaska school board bans five great books from high-school English courses

April 25, 2020 • 12:45 pm

As Clarence Darrow said in his eloquent summation at the Scopes Monkey Trial: “Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more.” To “ignorance and fanaticism” we can add “policing what other people can hear or read”, and a good example of that took place this week in Alaska, in particular in one school board that’s very hungry and gloating for a lot more.

The Matanuska-Susitna School Board,(MSSB) serving the second largest school district in Alaska (about 16,000 students), has just committed a dire act of censorship. (That district includes Wasilla, the city where Sarah Palin was mayor before she became infamous.) First, take a look at this list of five books:

 “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison

Catch-22” by Joseph Heller

The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou

The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I’ve read all of them save O’Brien’s, and they are all justly regarded as classics. But according to several articles, including the Anchorage Daily News article below (click on screenshot), all five have been banned from the 13 high schools in the district, although all are used (and some required) in high schools of the contiguous Anchorage school district.  As Ron Charles wrote in his Washington Post book news email (h/t: Merillee, no link available), the students who would read the books are 11th and 12th graders in elective English classes—in other words 17- and 18-year-olds. They are hardly tender young sprouts! And yet, by a 5-2 vote, the yahoos on the MSSB made these books unavailable.

Why on earth would a school board ban these books, depriving the students of some of the world’s greatest novels in English—novels that could inspire a ton of thought and discussion in the classroom? (These books beg to be taught.) Well, you can guess.  As Charles wrote:

Watching the videotape of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough school board meeting on April 22, you can actually see America’s IQ points circle the drain and slip away. Board member Jeff Taylor noted that these books are “controversial because of words like ‘rape’ and ‘incest’ and sexual references and language and things that are pretty serious problems, especially in our teenage world. . . . I would prefer these were gone.” Then, incredibly, he asked, “Can you help me understand why we would include controversial subjects?”

Vice President Jim Hart agreed. While admitting that he hasn’t read most of these books, he noted that he has read the CliffsNotes — “not literally ‘CliffsNotes’ the brand,” he clarified, “but the SparkNotes.” In that case, please, go on! Hart was particularly alarmed about the two classic books by African Americans. Here’s what he discovered lurking in Maya Angelou’s memoir from 1969: “Chapter 11 of ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ speaks of — not just molestation, but what happened during molestation in graphic terms. And in ways that, if I were to read this right now, the board would have perfect license to admonish me. . . . We’re talking about things that are very specific, and, you know, I think beyond the pale of just about any audience.”

One beleaguered board member who had a good sense of what great literature can do for high school students tried to push back, but to no effect. A moment was offered for public comment. None arrived. The vote was 5 to 2 to remove the books. Just like that, for these Alaskan kids, the world got a little whiter, a little smaller, a little dimmer. “So we beat on” — an allusion, alas, that members of the Mat-Su Borough school board won’t catch.

I haven’t watched that videotape, as it’s a bit over three hours long, but if you want to see what happened, knock yourself out—and then report back. But clearly the banning is about sex, though I can’t imagine what’s so objectionable in Gatsby, unless it’s the mention of Tom Buchanan’s mistress. And to ban a book you haven’t even read? I have no words, as they say. . . . except to surmise that those five censors are Republicans.

Who do these school-board members think they are—able to decide what a young adult can and cannot read, especially when the books are this great? It’s not as if these kids are completely unaware of sex and its dark side.  Well, henceforth the students of the Mat-Su Borough will not be allowed to read about either beating on or beating off. (Surely Portnoy’s Complaint would also be banned.)

83 thoughts on “Alaska school board bans five great books from high-school English courses

  1. I could see how the others might be twisted to wring out political kudos from your constituency, but (as you say, Jerry), “The Great Gatsby”?? I have to wonder what hidden outrage the SparkNotes uncovered in that one.

    1. I can speak only for myself, but Daisy’s friend the golfer, Jordan Baker, always inspires prurient thoughts in me every time I read the book. 🙂

      1. I read The Great Gatsby at school (age 16) 40 years ago. I have no clue what could be wrong with it. I didn’t see the film though, so maybe that’s why.

        1. There’ve been at least three filmed versions. Like the novel, they all end with a hit-and-run and a firearm murder, and contain a fair amount of speakeasy honky-tonking and extramarital philandering, but nothing your average American teenager shouldn’t be able to handle.

          1. There seem to be a lot of parents who think their kids don’t already know about this stuff. They think they’re shielding them from it in their homes and church (despite the Bible being full of far worse behaviour, including and especially from Yahweh’s favourites), and so they are ignorant. Even 50 years ago (I’m 56), I remember understanding conversations adults thought they were successfully hiding the meaning of. I bet kids these days know a lot more than I did. I know I knew a lot more than my parents did at the same age.

  2. Well, henceforth the students of the Mat-Su Borough will not be allowed to read about either beating on or beating off. (Surely Portnoy’s Complaint would also be banned.)

    Gotta admit, I didn’t see that one coming. Good one, boss.

    “Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”

  3. If they’d banned the terrible film adaptation of Catch-22, I would have understood – but Heller’s book? Was the problem Nately’s visits to the whorehouse? (Autocorrect really wanted me to use “White House” at the end of that second sentence – seems the big tech companies really do know everything!)

      1. Sorry, it was a stupid joke (the only kind I do). I obviously wasn’t seriously recommending or endorsing the banning of any films or books on the basis of individual (or collective) views of the merits of the works in question.

    1. Catch-22 is one of my all-time favorite novels. And I thought Mike Nichols — a great American director, if ever a one there was — did a pretty good job with the film.

      Not a great movie, sure. And by no means Nichols’s best. But a damn fine effort with what most people (me included) considered a novel that could not be adapted to the screen.

          1. Dobbs: “Help him! Help him!”

            Yossarian: “Help who?”

            Dobbs: “Help the bombardier!”

            Yassarian: “I am the bombardier.”

            Dobbs: “Then help HIM!”

            Those were the guts of the radio-gunner, Snowden, that got spilled on Yossarian in “the Death over Avignon.”

            1. Maybe one of the best anti-war movies I have seen. In fact I may have seen this movie when I was still in the service?

              1. Yeah, maybe I should’ve included a “spoiler alert” — though it’s just one (albeit important) among many recurring subplots.

    2. I love that movie and it was far better than the mini-series. The movie must be banned also because of Paula Prentiss (or double) on the raft right before ….

      As to Mat-Su, I wonder what books they do allow. I trust the Bible was banned long ago; really nasty stuff in there.

    3. I don’t recall there being *anything* particularly graphic about Nately’s visits to the whorehouse. In terms of sexual innuendo I’d rate Catch-22 among the more innocuous works. You can see more risque content on TV every night.

      But then I think we all know the real reason Catch-22 was on that list – not sex, but its utterly cynical and devastating demolition of authority. That, the five-year-old fascists on the School Board just can’t tolerate.


      1. Yes, but the word “whore” is used frequently in the book. In fact, the best female character is only ever referred to as “Nately’s whore”. In fact, I’m sure Catch 22 will be getting it from the Left as well as the right because of it.

          1. Not to forget the maid in the lime green panties, who did not seem to make an appearance in the latest George Clooney mini-series.

  4. Jeez, these guys call themselves book banners? Where’s Slaughterhouse Five, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, Huckleberry Finn, War and Peace, Pride and Prejudice, On the Origin of Species, Das Kapital, The U.S. Constitution, The Cat in the Hat, Euclid’s Elements, Leviticus? I’d say their work has just begun.

      1. I was going to post about that, but you beat me to it. If I felt more outrage, I’d e-mail them all a choice list of passages, starting with the rape and ax murder in Judges 19 & 20, and ask if they were planning to ban the book in which they appear.

    1. Not to mention most of Shakespeare, including the sonnets, Marlowe, Jonson, Webster, Thomas Middleton, Virgil (homo-eroticism)…

  5. If I had a few more hours a day (plus the energy level I briefly peak at after 16 oz. of strong coffee) I would like to attempt writing a comedy based on this (and several other school boards’)rulings. Instead, If I may, I’m inclined to sum up my two cents in these few words: Barbara Streisand effect plus internet access.

  6. Combined with Texas’ curriculum requirement to teach that the US Constitution is derived from Moses, US education is being suppressed by the willfully ignorant.

    Hopefully however censorship never works. This might actually encourage more teenagers to read those books than if it were a class assignment.

  7. The Things They Carried is one of the true modern classics. I’ve used it in creative writing for years as it’s as much a writer’s book as a collection of war stories. It has bad language, but as O’Brien himself says, “You can tell a true war story by it’s uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”

    1. The Things They Carried is a great collection — kind of a companion piece to O’Brien’s great Vietnam War novel Going After Cacciato.

      It was a nasty, worthless war, but it gave us some great literature — Fields of Fire, Paco’s Story, and Phil Caputo’s memoir A Rumor of War among them.

      1. The Things They Carried is a masterpiece — powerful, evocative, moving. But don’t forget Michael Herr’s Dispatches, a piece of deeply embedded, personal reporting as incendiary as that insane war, written like a fever dream. One of the most powerful, dazzling books I have ever read.

        1. yeah, I thought of Dispatches after I posted my comment. It’s full of images that defy forgetting. If I’m not mistaken, Herr also contributed to the screenplays for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.

  8. Catch-22 is one of my all-time favorites. If I could only read two books, it would be that and Confederacy of Dunces, which is exactly what we have here.

  9. “Who do these school-board members think they are—able to decide what a young adult can and cannot read?”

    Well, that sorta is their job—no? As I understand it, you’re not so much objecting to their deciding what young adults can read as much as disagreeing with their decisions.

    Personally, I have no objection to school boards, PTAs, or community standards deciding what should be on local school reading lists. What’s the alternative, after all? Someone has to decide.

    1. Those books are classics, and that’s my objection. You think they did the right thing by banning them? The books were already being used and sometimes REQUIRED in the nest school distrinct.

      1. “You think they did the right thing by banning them?”

        Would I have banned them? No. Do I think they have the right to decide what students in their schools should read? Yes.

        1. Don’t think we’re talking about the “right” to ban books, and it may be that they don’t get to decide issues like this, depending on the state. The legal “right” to ban books isn’t of any interest here, is it? That isn’t what Jerry or anyone else is concerned about, I don’t think. It is the pretentious ignorance and narrow-mindedness that is galling.

        2. Well, if mirandaga doesn’t have the right to ban good books, why should a group of ignoramuses who happen to be on a school board have the right to do so? Ant halfway adventurous students would surely lay their hands on the books as soon as they learn what they ae being denied.

    2. deciding what should be on local school reading lists

      I have no problem with this, but what they are doing is deciding what cannot be read. Recommend away, but they can pry my banned books from my cold, dead hands.

    3. Whether or not the school board can overrule what a teacher chooses to teach in an English class, you’d agree that these books should be available to students in the school library, wouldn’t you, Gary?

      1. “. . .you’d agree that these books should be available to students in the school library, wouldn’t you, Gary?”

        Hi, Ken. I’d have to say that’s up to the people who have the authority to decide what should and shouldn’t be in the school library.

        Also, I don’t think it’s a question of “overruling” what a teacher chooses to teach. The teacher can’t choose to teach what’s not on the curriculum, which, for better or worse, is set by the school board.

        Teachers, parents, PTAs, and students are free to lobby for books that they think should be on the curriculum, but someone has to have the final say on what to include. To call a book that isn’t included “banned” is a bit of a stretch, since it would apply to every book in existence that the school board didn’t choose.

        I’m guessing we’re at odds on this one. 😊

        1. I dunno, Gary. As I think you know, I’m pretty close to a free-speech absolutist. So I think taking these books — especially these particular books — off the curriculum is unwise. Oh, hell, I think it’s downright stupid.

          But such decisions must be made, of course, and as to how they should be made in a democracy and by whom — well, that’s a matter I haven’t thought through completely yet. I do think that leaving such decisions to the discretion of local, elected officials is an invitation to philistine blue-noses to deny students exposure to great works of literature, as this foolishness in Alaska demonstrates.

          1. “. . .leaving such decisions to the discretion of local, elected officials is an invitation to philistine blue-noses to deny students exposure to great works of literature.”

            As a free-speech absolutist (and I’m with you there), you surely realize that a certain amount of stupidity has to be tolerated in the service of the principle. Insofar as the local, elected officials reflect the local values of the community they serve (and to some extent they have to or they’ll be out on their butts), those values will (and I would argue should) be reflected in what’s included in the school curriculum or library. You and I might consider their values to be “stupid” or “philistine,” but you can be pretty sure that they don’t think any more highly of ours.

            I can’t say I like this position, but I don’t really see any way around it.

        2. mirandaga:
          “I’d have to say that’s up to the people who have the authority to decide what should and shouldn’t be in the school library.”

          If I’m not mistaken, the SC has decided this question in Board of Education v. Pico (1982.) From Brennan’s opinion, “In brief, we hold that local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books…”

          1. “In brief, we hold that local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books…”

            Thanks, tomh, I wasn’t aware of that ruling.

            I have to say, however, that it raises as many questions as it answers. Aside from removing books, is the school board free not to include books just because they dislike the ideas? (I.e., who gets to decide what books are ut in the library in the first place?) Are they free to include books just because they do like the ideas?

            If I have time, I’ll go take a look at Board of Education v. Pico as I’m sure it must address some of these and other questions that the ruling raises. Meanwhile, I’ve got some packing to do.

            1. It did not address teaching or the acquisition of books for the library, but forbade removal from the library if the board didn’t care for the ideas presented.

    4. Local school boards in the united states promulgate state education laws, state board of education policies, and develop local policies for the superintendent to execute. The mat su school board members are elected directly to three-year terms by the citizens in a non partison election it appears. So they are simply doing what the people elected them to do…just like tRump. School board elections are often very low turn out and generally end up continuing the status quo or can lead to a few new people pushed by an activist group being elected. Elections rotate so that only two or three members change in any one election. You can get the board members email addresses from their website and write them if you like.

    5. Not just banning books for no real reason (most of them never even read the books) but doing it as a motion on the floor, with zero public input allowed, since the meetings were completely online. I think they generated enough outrage in the community to do very much harm to their position. The whole process reeked of control.

  10. What’s next? Book burning?

    To quote Heinrich Heine: “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.” (Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.)

    1. Absolutely true. In my day it was Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In fact most copies of it automatically fell open at the 11 (was it?) ‘interesting’ pages.

      These days kids don’t need to. They’ve got the Internet. 😉


  11. “Well, henceforth the students of the Mat-Su Borough will not be allowed to read about either beating on or beating off.”

    Would that the Bible were taught as literature and culture there. What good Christian on the board would object to that?

    Let the students get up and take turns
    loudly reading and discussing, just for starters:

    – Onan being struck dead for spilling his seed, and a straight-forward explication of this euphemism, maybe even at a school-wide assembly – or better yet – a videoed school board meeting.

    – an examination of the ethics (and murders) involved in Job’s ordeal.

    – every verse dealing with the details of circumcision. (Of what? Well, though I heard the word “circumcision” uttered many times from the pulpit as a single-digit youngster, it was several years later in adolescence that I learned exactly what was being “cut around.”) And why not have a mohel come in and do a demonstration for their edification?

    – any verse where “sacrifice” and “breast” and “member” “to know” is mentioned.

    – every verse where the Israelites killed the Amalekite, Midianite, Canaanite, Ammonite, etc. elderly, mothers and infants, sparing the virgins.

    – the tale of Jephthah’s rash oath and his teenage daughter dancing up to and greeting him.

    – the regulations regarding the whipping of ones slaves and the treatment of females.

    1. Actually, the next round of reviews in the MSBSD will include “The Bible within History and Literature”. I wish it was comparative religion, instead.

  12. Don’t let them see the Bible or they will ban that one from here to the Russia that Tina Fey impersonating Sarah Palin can see from her house.

  13. This is funny in that these days kids are far more exposed to “mature material” than they used to be due to phones, school laptops, and other media. My own boys (pre-teens) have already been exposed to much more than you would expect, not because they have phones, but because their friends do. Some of their friends have most recent phones with apparently full adult privileges on them.

    And of course the material they are exposed to from these phones is presented as-is, without the filtering of the novels in question.

  14. Creationism explained

    God made the Idiot for practice, and then He made the School Board.

    Mark Twain

  15. Maybe it is 3D chess in order to get pupils to actually read these books? (/s)
    As a youngster, I heard “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” was a banned book. Although it was already unbanned by then, it’s alleged salaciousness was irresistible. Man, was I disappointed there. Luckily, still a great unnerving read though.

Leave a Reply