Apparently, the principal of Booker T Washington High in Pensacola Florida has cancelled the school's "One School/One Book" summer reading program all in an effort to keep students from reading Cory Doctorow's book "Little Brother." It appears he may be against the fact that one of the messages of the book is the importance of "questioning authority," and has decided to show the school what true, obnoxious authoritarianism looks like. OK, admittedly, that's a rather heavy-handed indictment of his action...but I, for one, really am sick of educators choosing to eliminate teens' access to widely published books (in this case, one of the best pieces of modern literature int he last 10 years, IMHO) rather than encouraging dialog about it.
I fully grock* the importance of an educator, particularly a high school principal, in exercising their good judgement in what materials are presented to and how they are discussed with young people. Further, I recognize the importance (both ethically and legally) of doing so incompliance with prevailing contemporary community standards. Indeed, the good folks of Pensacola, Florida may have a greatly different view of what is appropriate than I do and I respect the educator's purpose in teaching the kids of the community in concert with parents' expressed concerns. Only, there appears to be only one expressed concern - and it appears to be false (one parent complained that the book was ridden with profanity: it is not...in fact, no profanity at all, save one reference to profanity, not the use of profanity). I say all this as the parent of a high school student and a middle school student: even if I don't agree with such a decision, I fully recognize and respect the context into which the principal of Booker T. Washington High School must feel it falls.
However, let me offer a contrasting perspective on how to deal with this. The good principal's stated concern was over "the book's positive view of questioning authority, lauding 'hacker culture', and discussing sex and sexuality in passing." Oh my.
Again, respecting that the book's "view" on those issues may be in conflict with those prevailing in Pensacola, FL (really?!), let me offer an important question often glossed over in debates about what teens should read: Doesn't this offer a great "teaching moment" for the kids in discussion of the books themes and perspective? I will state emphatically that "Little Brother"'s discussion of questioning authority, "hacker culture" and sex and sexuality are reflective of those of the current generation of high school age youth. This isn't something strange, alien or even new to the kids who would read it. Nor am I advocating their promotion any more than I am the language aimed at people of color in Mark Twain's classic "Tom Sawyer" or the violence in James Fenimore Cooper's "The Last of the Mohicans". What is important is providingthem a healthy, safe and robust environment to discuss these topics....a context within which to learn that they are important and why. Removing the opportunity to read the book, let alone cancelling the whole summer reading program (summer reading programs are, in my humble opinion, one of the best tools in the modern day curriculum not only for kids to learn but to develop fundamental skills for the rest of their lives), seems draconian, short-sided and cowardly...if not down-right lazy. What are we teaching the kids with this decision?
In response to my last question, let me also share that the publisher of "Little Brother" is sending 200 copies of the books to the students of Booker T. Washington High School free of charge. Without editorial comment on that decision, let me offer the observation that this isn't a surprising response and one that might have been anticipated by the principal. It, in and of itself, presents a critique of the principal's decision that will get the students thinking and talking about the book, the principal's decision and what it all means. Do you think it will have the outcome the principal desires? Remember that context for interpretation I mentioned a few sentences back?
Full disclosure: I read Cory Doctorow's "Little Brother" last year and loved it. I wanted to read some of the up and coming writers, those whose work is now being hailed, to get a better grip on what they are thinking about, writing about and their perspective. Having plowed through all of Neal Stephenson's work (my favorite author of my generation), I think I've found my substitute until Stephenson's next tome is published. Does it help that "Little Brother" has a protagonist that is my son's age and goes to a (public) high school in the same neighborhood as my son's (private) high school? Yeah, of course it does - it makes the novel more personal and "real" (yes, it does accurately portray both San Francisco and the morays of its inhabitants). Do I see the world much as the author, Cory Doctorow, does? Yeah, probably. But I don't think those factors detract from my assessment of the principal of Booker T. Washington High School in Pensacola, FL who, I believe, brings shame on his community for his "leadership". Your mileage may vary.
*Grock= a word introduced in Robert Heinlein's A Stranger in a Strange Land", a landmark of science-fiction that has also provoked much thought and much controversy.