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LETTERS / Politics and Education Don’t Mix

Dear Editor,

The potential banning of Isabelle Allende’s book The House of the Spirits has stirred up strong emotions.  On the one hand, state and local educators have determined that the book has important value for our students.   On the other hand, a concerned parent has exercised her right to question the value of the book because, she feels it too violent and graphic.   The debate has also raised broader questions about freedom of access to information and whether our schools should be teaching about facets of life that are violent and sexual.  What should be a straightforward assessment of educational merit has turned into a mess of conflicting and confusing arguments.

Let’s untangle things.   First off, the complaint (obtainable from the school board) highlighted two issues:  the merit of the book and how the alternative book (available to students who don’t want to read Allende’s) is taught.  It’s important to remember that the class in question, 10th grade honors English, is not obligatory and that Allende’s book is part of the North Carolina common core 10th grad curriculum.   It is used widely across the state and has been taught before in Watauga High School.   However, a student opting for the alternative can still take honors English and receives one-on-one instruction (from Watauga county’s 2012 Teacher of the Year).  In short, nobody has to read the book although our honors students compete against others who do and an alternative is available.

Unfortunately, the complaint contains important errors (e.g. it’s not about the Spanish revolution and students are not forced to read it) and was accompanied by a set of edited excerpts- which I found were copied from the website pabbis.org.  We all know how misleading out-of-context excerpts can be.

Fortunately, the school system has a process to address complaints by establishing committees to examine all sides of the question.  This process is ongoing.  The first committee met and decided 7-0 against the complaint.  Normally that would be the end of it but an appeal was launched so the process continues.   

Proponents from both sides are lining up to have their say.  Sadly, over the past few days however, the discussion has gotten ugly with politicians weighing in not as individual citizens but as county commissioners.  What right do commissioners, who should represent the whole county and not just one political party, have to throw their weight around?  This just complicates an already complicated process.  Let’s keep focused.  Let’s let the school board do its job.  This is not a political issue, it’s about education.  Over the past few years we have witnessed unprecedented levels of political polarization all over the country.  Do we really want this for our schools with our kids in the middle?  Where is the respect for the teaching professionals who have been responsible for Watauga High School being one of the highest ranked in the state?   

Another important question is this:  Should we leave our kids to learn about the darker side of life from movies, video games, internet media and gossip?  Some people have pointed out that the Bible has a lot of rough stuff too: violence, incest, rape, etc..   But let’s not forget that that content is designed to teach valuable lessons and prepare us to meet life’s challenges.  Our educators have chosen The House of the Spirits for the same reason.  It’s not a question of whether or not teachers or parents “like” the book.  We’re talking about education.  Many of our most important lessons come from pretty tough places.  Being guided through them by highly skilled teachers helps prepare students for reality.  Isn’t that what education is all about?

 Paul Siegel