The McMinn County School board in Tennessee voted 10-0 on Jan. 10 to ban the use of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Maus by Art Spiegelman from the school’s eighth-grade curriculum. The graphic novel is considered by some to be one of the most important pieces of art about the Holocaust. First reported on by The Tennessee Holler, the outlet reports that the board told them this didn’t have to do with the book being about the Holocaust.
But it does. Not unlike the Tennessee school board that voted to fire Sullivan County school teacher and baseball coach Matthew Hawn for assigning an opinion piece on white privilege by Ta-Nehisi Coates back in June, this latest move has to do with the discomfort some (white) parents feel about educators using the truth to talk about difficult aspects of human history. Director of Schools Lee Parkinson began the meeting by explaining that some of the folks on the board had come to him with worries about “some rough, objectionable language in this book.” This led to some of the book’s text and a nude drawing of a woman being redacted. But this wasn’t good enough.
The minutes of the discussion are thoroughly recorded, and while educators gave well-reasoned defenses for the book, in the end the school board hid behind bad words to make their decision.
Reading the minutes of the meeting, you can see Steven Brady, an assistant principal in the McMinn County school system, and Assistant Principal Julie Goodin trying to walk the school board through how social studies and history is taught in middle school and high school and why Maus is used as a foundational part of the introduction to the Holocaust. Brady tries to mollify the board by saying that they can have the bad words like “bitch” redacted, the way television will bleep out a bad word from time to time.
Board member Tony Allman is having a difficult time wrapping his mind around it all, first thinking that the book is for eighth graders reading on a third-grade reading level. Brady explains that the book is a middle school book, “Not just because of the words but because of the content and the deeper meaning to what is going on in the book.” Allman says he understands redacting words the way he sees folks doing it on the television set, but “being in the schools, educators and stuff we don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff. It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff, it is not wise or healthy.”
Goodin pops in here to tell the board how she was a history teacher, so she has actually taught history, “and there is nothing pretty about the Holocaust and for me this was a great way to depict a horrific time in history. Mr. Spiegelman did his very best to depict his mother passing away and we are almost 80 years away. It’s hard for this generation, these kids don’t even know 9/11, they were not even born. For me this was his way to convey the message. Are the words objectionable? Yes, there is no one that thinks they aren’t but by taking away the first part, it’s not changing the meaning of what he is trying to portray and copyright.”
Allman still doesn’t get it, though he continues to start sentences by saying, “I understand.” He argues that these words would get a student in trouble in the hallway, so this book is teaching against the disciplinary policy of the school. (That sound you hear is my brain screaming.) Melasawn Knight, an educational supervisor for the county, hopes she can help the board by reminding them that there are big kid pants that big kids have to wear when they are being big kids. “I think any time you are teaching something from history, people did hang from trees, people did commit suicide and people were killed, over six million were murdered. I think the author is portraying that because it is a true story about his father that lived through that. He is trying to portray that the best he can with the language that he chooses that would relate to that time, maybe to help people who haven’t been in that aspect in time to actually relate to the horrors of it. Is the language objectionable? Sure. I think that is how he uses that language to portray that.”
Allman says he ain’t denying the Holocaust sounds wicked terrible and all of that and he “may be wrong, but this guy that created the artwork used to do the graphics for Playboy. You can look at his history, and we’re letting him do graphics in books for students in elementary school. If I had a child in the eighth grade, this ain’t happening. If I had to move him out and homeschool him or put him somewhere else, this is not happening.” Oh. So Allman was sort of full of BS about that language thing. Now he’s onto some thing about Spiegelman drawing stuff for Playboy magazine? Does he know that Donald Trump was in the March 1990 issue of Playboy? We should probably cross Trump out of all the history books. Just saying.
Allman then attempts to say what in the world will happen if a student reads some of these words out loud in the “cafeteria.” It’s drivel.
Brady then comes up and gives a presentation on how things are taught in modules and subjects are built out so that children have a larger understanding to bring to more complex readings and subjects as the school year progresses.
The curriculum that we use is called EL, what does that stand for? I see some teachers here, what does that stand for? Expeditionary Learning. So, the whole idea is that students go on these expeditions, and they will spend two months or so on these different expeditions, and that’s their modules. In eighth grade that is four things. We do Latin America, we learn about food, The Holocaust and JapaneseInternment.
The task that students do at the end of this module, after they spend a couple months talking about the Holocaust, studying this project that they do that shows they understand what went on, they will write their own narrative and pretend that they have interviewed a Holocaust upstander. They are going to create graphic novel panels to visually represent a section of their narrative and they will present that to their peers. You have all these standards that we saw earlier are addressed through this project. Last part, how do we get there? Well, here’s out text. So, our anchor text is Maus, and we have all these supplemental things that we look at throughout this module that build to that anchor text.
Brady goes on to explain how there are interviews with Holocaust survivors they will read and watch and “excerpts from other books,” but that there is no replacing Maus without changing the entire module of teaching. Career and Technical Education Director Jonathan Pierce says he just can’t in good conscience let eighth graders read a graphic novel about the Holocaust, in part it seems because he himself has such a loathsome history of dirtbaggery that … I don’t know what he’s trying to say, honestly.
JONATHAN PIERCE: My objection, and I apologize to everyone sitting here, is that my standard no matter, and I am probably the biggest sinner and crudest person in this room, can I lay that in front of a child and say read it, or this is part of your reading assignment. I’ve got enough faith from the Director of Schools down to the newest hire in this building, that you can take that module and rewrite it and make it do the same thing.
Pierce goes on to spin some more poorly written Matlock-inspired dialogue before saying, “I’m going to bring this to a head,” and asks for the removal of the book “and challenge our instructional staff to come with an alternative method of teaching the Holocaust.” Then former college baseball player and PTO “co-president at both City Park School and Athens City Middle School,” Rob Shamblin says this: “We kind of jumped into the 7th, 8th, now the 9th inning on this and I appreciate the presentation, Mr. Brady, on the background of how the curriculum is set. But, we are here because some people objected to the words and the graphics used in the book. My bigger concern is that this is probably the tip of the iceberg of what is out there.”
You see where this is going? Shamblin wants to know how we weed out more of these Pulitzer Prize-winning pieces of art that are considered by many to be the only way to really talk about a historic event where millions and millions of men, women, and children were singled out and murdered. Shamblin goes on to straight up lie and say that he has “read the background on this author and the series, talked to some educators, and it is a highly critically acclaimed and a well reviewed series and book context. It’s banned many places in Europe because of how critical it is against the heinous acts that were done.” There’s one place that has banned Maus: Russia. According to Russia, it isn’t banned “because of how critical it is against the heinous acts that were done,” but because the cover has a swastika on it.
But think about what he is lying about to excuse banning the book: It’s been banned because it’s too critical of the Nazis?
The back-and-forth goes on and in the end Denise Cunningham, Bill Irvin, Quinten Howard, Sharon Brown, Mike Cochran, Mike Lowry, Donna Casteel, Jonathan Pierce, Tony Allman, and Rob Shamblin voted to remove Maus from the district’s Holocaust curriculum.
As for the fact that the whole Holocaust module is anchored by the book, I leave you with this small interchange right before the vote:
Rob Shamblin: At that point if it’s been removed, it could be added back if there is no better alternative, I assume? I don’t know what it’s going to take to find an alternative.
Sharon Brown: It would probably mean we would have to move on to another module, they would know better than I on that.
And just like that, those kids’ education about World War II and the Holocaust just became less honest and far less intelligent.
Update Thursday, Jan. 27. from the McMinn County School Board: