Albemarle County Schools to cave in to censorship— ‘A Study In Stupidity’
by Jim Stern
Censor Sherlock Holmes, are they kidding? The School Board is poised to ban Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study In Scarlet. The Nazi’s burned books, is that next? Check out en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_book_burnings. I can see it now; soon nothing will be available for our children to read. Just because one Albemarle County parent did not want her sixth grader, or any other student for that matter, to read the terrible connotations made in the novel, it will be removed from classes unless we act to stop this group of zealots. Tell us, who are the parents making this claim? We have a right to know.
As an active and heavily involved Mormon, I’m deeply embarrassed by this action and deeply ashamed that any Mormon parent would ask for this book to be banned. I think it is a wonderful opportunity for teaching students about controversial viewpoints in classical literature, of which they will be exposed to over the course of their education. We can’t let this happen. When are the citizens of this country going to respect the Constitutional rights that we have been given?
School Board Chairman, Steve Koleszar was part of the committee that recommended the book be removed. But we aren’t even told anything about the others deciding the future of our schools. Just who is on the committee? Surely they’re not “anonymous”. Rather than embrace a teaching opportunity, these parents would rather ignore history.
I’m embarrassed by the ignorance expressed by both the parents and the committee; banning books is not the answer.
The words above, even the title, are not mine. But after reading them, do we need to find out more about these out of control book burning zealots? Should we demand they show their faces? Should we approach the only known person on the committee, School Board Chairman Steve Kolezar, and demand answers? No.
Despite being quoted as a committee member Steve Koleszar wasn’t there.[i] There was no discussion of banning books. Despite some peoples imagined frenzy, there were no calls for mob justice, no anger, no hidden agendas; there was not even a raised voice in the committee meeting that day. I know because I was a member of that review committee. My name is Jim Stern and I was there. Much of what has been reported is inaccurate and all of it is incomplete; most public comments are even less a reflection of reality.
I hoped the opening paragraphs would catch your attention. But the words above are not mine and come from many sources.[ii] Sentences are combined to read as if written by one person but are the comments of many different people from local news reports, newspaper articles, blogs and the comments people have posted in response.[iii]
Most people in our community are likely unaware, unconcerned or apathetic to the School Board’s vote this Thursday on the future of A Study in Scarlet; others loudly voice opinions on the matter. Local citizens on the right accuse the committee of impinging on the Constitution and forgetting freedom while those on the left compare us to past book banners and burners. Some local Mormons and a vast majority of the Mormon community outside of Charlottesville do not support the Mormon complainant and express firm, but polite concerns. They worry the Mormon complainant will cause harm to their community not just because they could be labeled as ‘book banners’ but realizing that shielding students may lead to ‘repeating the past’.
I can state with confidence that what has happened in the process of reviewing Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet should cause no alarm. I am proud of the committee and both the complainant and the teacher who presented their positions on the text.
The committee did the right thing within the confines of our abilities. That being said, I realize making the right decision is the not the entire story and the committee did not make the best decision. I am confident that The School Board will make follow the committees lead and are unlikely to reach to achieve the best solution. Let me explain and I hope together the entire community can come together, support and implement the best decision.
First, the committee was led by Dr. Haas and several other ACPS educators and community members. One complainant presented the case for removal from the 6th grade reading list, with a friend there for support who spoke little, if at all. One teacher presented the case to retain the text on the 6th grade reading list. [iv]
We identified several problems as a committee, but only two are worth noting. Years ago, the educator who approved this text was not as thorough as the Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS) process required then and now. If the process in place had been followed to the letter back then, I think it would have prevented what has happened now, but there was no malice or agenda. Secondly, ACPS staff interactions with the student of the complainant (not by the teacher who addressed the committee) were guided by the best of intentions but were not what we would desire in our diverse and accepting school system. But no blame should be assigned. Without a comprehensive lesson plan that provided the required knowledge of the treatment of Mormons in this book, adequate guidance was unavailable.
The committee recommended the book be removed from the classroom and remain off the reading list until an adequate lesson plan is developed and in place. We also stated clearly the book will remain in middle and high school libraries with unfettered student access. It was the lack of the comprehensive lesson plan that compelled this conclusion.
The parent who filed the complaint was well prepared, articulate and reasonable. She was passionate about her faith and clearly acted on behalf of a child she loved dearly. The teacher who spoke in response was just as well prepared, articulate and reasonable. She was passionate about the novel, Sherlock Holmes and her students and clearly acted on behalf of a love of student knowledge. And all discussion was held without a moment of contention during the entire meeting.
The committee did not ‘ban’ the book and never discussed such an action because the complainant did not ask for the book to be banned. Her compliant specifically stated she thought the book was appropriate for high school students. Everyone in and out of the Mormon community expressing fears over this book review does not realize the expert detail of the complainant’s presentation and that she started from the position that no book should be kept from our students.
ACPS does not shy away from tough material but the committee is not in a position to create and implement comprehensive lesson plans. Faced with hurting the Mormon student and community it was the RIGHT decision to recommend removal from the reading list.
But it was clearly not the BEST decision either.
We hurt one teacher deeply. The teacher who spoke to the committee loved teaching students this material. We also hurt all the students who will not get to read this book under her tutelage. We talk about teaching tolerance and understanding but are we willing to do the work required to use this opportunity to demonstrate we stand behind our words?
The committee’s decision means that we will not allow students to read the book with the guidance of a teacher, but we will allow the same student to read the book with no guidance at all.
The BEST solution would be to join together as a community and commit to having this text available to teachers that want to use it by writing the needed comprehensive lesson plans. Individually, a comprehensive lesson plan cannot be created by the committee, by ACPS, or by the Mormon community. Alone it is impossible. But it could be done together. The entire text contains only a handful of sentences that are an issue. Still the job would be difficult, but no more so than other texts. Many controversial texts are already in the hands of our students because of the difficult work done by others before us who did what was required to stop books from moving from the classroom to library shelf and forgotten.
The best solution is not within the reach of the committee or the School Board. The BEST solution requires us to step up to the task of creating a comprehensive lesson plan. I believe the parent and teacher that presented to the committee would be among the first to sign on to help. There must be others willing to save Sherlock Holmes. But in addition to mystery we can teach values with a proper lesson plan. There is great power in learning that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle realized later in life that he needed to apologize for his actions and that the Mormons responded with forgiveness.
What happens from here is not under the control of a nameless and faceless committee. It depends on the face in the mirror. Do you see a face willing to let Sherlock Holmes’ first appearance in text disappear from classrooms just to sidestep difficult issues? Will you be one of the voices that criticizes the committee and School Board, rather than to get personally involved? A Study In Scarlet will not be removed from the library shelf but it will sit their moldering unless together we explore the more difficult path. From Charlottesville to Utah, many argue the book is not ‘good enough’ to expend effort on saving when other Doyle books are available. The value of a piece of literature may not just be in the text itself. Greater value may be in the dialogue it compels. So many Mormon voices have pointed out that if we remove A Study In Scarlet from the classroom, we have squandered the opportunity to teach something special to our students, regardless of religion.
I am hope someone sees a face in the mirror of someone who has been called upon to save this piece of literature, bring communities together and set an example for our students and children that will be remembered throughout their lives.
Jim Stern (parent of four ACPS children, each an avid and contemplative reader)
I hope no one reads this in haste. Even if I have a similar viewpoint, nothing in the opening three paragraphs should be taken as my words, feelings or opinion or attributed to me. The remainder contains my thoughts and mine alone. I believe that everyone on the committee either would agree with the majority of my comments, but I do not represent my comments as created or approved by the committee.
[ii] When I began to collect what was being said about this process I had not planned on needing documentation. I have included many of the links below but do not want to portray this as complete. I also did not use anything from radical or hateful sites or items from legitimate sites like Twitter if they seemed overtly hateful. Some sites have had content changes and may no longer exist but the first example is a cached link. Some sites have had web content overwritten.
[iii] My changes were for readability and I believe I have not misrepresented the original comments by those changes.
b) “The Nazi’s burned books, is that next?”
c) “Will there soon be nothing left for our children to read?”
became my new sentences
The Nazi’s burned books, is that next? Check out en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_book_burnings. I can see it now, soon nothing will be available for our children to read.
[iv] Even the term ‘reading list’ is used in blog posts with incorrect attributes by parties unfamiliar with how ACPS uses the term. It is not a mandatory list but rather the palette of works from which a teacher may choose for inclusion in class studies. Many also incorrectly thought removal from the list removed all access to the text for all students.