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Maintaining a politically correct classroom requires delicate balance

Date: 1/30/2013

By G. Michael Dobbs

What students should and shouldn't read in high school is a debate that has raged for years and it popped up at the Springfield School Committee meeting last week.

Frequently the trouble is not with the book itself, but with how students and their parents might react to it.

Critics and readers alike have praised the book, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian." Its use though of profanity and the "n" word has caused problems for some people.

School Committee member Antonette Pepe brought her concerns and those of some teachers and students to the School Committee. Pepe had prepared excerpts from the book that she wanted administrators to read aloud into the record and for the audience viewing the meeting at home.

No one would, so Pepe repeated some of the sexual themes and language used in the book.

There were some smug folks in the audience who smirked at Pepe's presentation, but she was simply doing her job by bringing an issue forward that had been brought to her. What she was presenting was simply an introduction to a much larger topic.

Am I to assume Springfield teachers have never had the problem of the political correctness gap in American society? One in which popular culture has one standard and schools and the workplace have quite another. Perhaps they have never had been faced with a chorus of Beavises and Butt-heads chortling when the title "Moby Dick" is mentioned – I have.

The question is how do teachers attempt to maintain a politically correct classroom? The sexual and racial topics in "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian" are fine to discuss within the context of a book perhaps, but are not necessarily fine in conversation just before class starts. Is that correct?

How do teachers explain the "n" word is not acceptable in everyday speech – as it is totally offensive to many people – but it is acceptable in contemporary books, music and film?

School Committee member Denise Hurst defended the book and brought up the fact that classics of American literature such as "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "Of Mice and Men" – her two examples – contain the "n" word.

That was an excellent point and ultimately it requires the teachers to put a book written decades ago into the proper historical and social context.

When people start tossing out the word "censorship," you can see the liberals in the room gird their loins and get ready for battle. Is devising a reading list for English classes "censorship" or "selection?" How do teachers and administrators address an angry parent who isn't pleased about the themes or language in a particular book?

Hey, is Sinclair Lewis or George Orwell being taught today? Wouldn't Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" be relevant today? Or is the conclusion of that book too controversial? Is The Man censoring three of the best writers of the 20th Century?

I raise my fist in protest. Censorship is not an issue here.

Sometimes, I believe that teachers believe the way to reach a group of teens is to address them through the idiom and imagery of their popular culture. If you assign a book about a Native American teen trying to find his way through life that you will connect as a teacher with a kid from Springfield who may be having similar issues.

I understand the theory, but the execution must be more than in just one class. The question is if ultimately education is a collaboration between student and teacher with support from parents, what happens if the parents believe a subject of study goes counter to the beliefs of their own family? How do teachers and administrators address that?

Agree? Disagree? Drop me a line at or at 280 N. Main St., East Longmeadow, MA 01028. As always, this column represents the opinion of its author and not the publishers or advertisers of this newspaper.