A lesson to be learned

Monday, December 4, 2006

A recent controversy in Carroll provides a lesson on how not to handle questionable material in school curriculums and school libraries.

Students at Carroll High School are fighting a decision to ban a novel, "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," which was pulled from the high school's literature-to-film class by Superintendent Rob Cordes because he said there were concerns expressed by parents about an oral sex reference.

The novel and a subsequent movie based on the novel deal with a young man's experiences with his troubled family in a small Iowa town.

Nearly 250 people have joined the group - "Un-ban Gilbert Grape! Censorship Is Wrong" - and organizers say they plan to collect signatures for a letter calling for a formal school district review of Cordes' decision.

We have a couple of points to make regarding the controversy. First, it would not be practical or desirable to remove all material that anyone might find offensive from access by high school students. The Carroll school administration does not advocate doing that. The book in question still remains at the high school library.

Second, a literature class does not include every piece of literature ever written nor is a school library a repository for every copyrighted work. Subjective decisions must be made regarding both the quality of material and its appropriateness at school. Literature that may deal with meaningful issues may be deemed inappropriate for high school students because of explicit sexual descriptions or graphic descriptions of violence.

We're not saying that What's Eating Gilbert Grape contains either of these, just that there are no moral absolutes when dealing with decisions regarding what literature to include in a high school course.

However, no matter whether material is appropriate or not, a decision imposed by an administrator to exclude material in a class should be done only after careful consideration and not after the course has begun or the material to be used is announced.

The controversy resulting from the way the matter was handled in Carroll could be predicted. The book and the subsequent film based on the novel are now receiving more attention from young people in the district than it otherwise would have.

This may or may not be good, depending on the person's view of this particular work. Those who believe the work is inappropriate should be the most concerned that its removal from a course be handled discreetly.