Committee upholds contested African novel
December 6, 2012
A lively discussion on how best to expose teenagers to the world’s dark and disturbing realities became a prevailing defense of a classic novel taught in sophomore English at Douglas High School.On Monday night, a committee of educators, parents and one student voted unanimously, 7-0, to keep Chinua Achebe’s African novel, “Things Fall Apart,” in the classroom as part of the SpringBoard curriculum.“To enlighten is to teach,” said Douglas High English teacher Elizabeth Tully. “It is to shine a light on the darkness so that we may improve. I feel the author does that in this book. He wanted to put a light on the darkness of history.”But a parent of a student in Tully’s 10th-grade honors English course formally challenged the novel in a Sept. 26 complaint. Granite Way resident Luanne Toskin attended Monday’s hearing to present her objections, adding she’s read the book since filing the complaint.“It’s not as bad as I expected,” she said. “I object to just parts of it.”She argued the book includes “too much descriptive, dark language,” specifically about sex and violence.“The main character, Okonkwo, is an oath-breaker, a murderer, a wife-beater, and a liar, and his culture kills baby twins. On top of that, he commits suicide,” she said. “I don’t want those pictures in my daughter’s head.”Toskin described the novel as “sad and frustrating.”“What’s the point?” she asked. “To make us feel empathy for a culture of people that civilization was going to erase?”Tully countered by saying the book provides a month-long unit during which students discuss history, their own culture and choices, and what it means to be civilized.“They are immersed in the culture of a Nigerian tribe (Igbo) in the late 1800s, and it includes some customs that are appalling,” she said. However, she argued that when the book was published in 1958, Achebe was presenting, for the first time, colonialism as seen through the eyes of Africans rather than Europeans.“Before Achebe, it was mockery of what it was like to be African,” she said. She also argued the narrative allows students to study the archetype of the tragic hero, and how personal flaws precipitate the character’s own demise. “Yes, he has abominable qualities,” she said, “but they’re not praised. They’re exposed.”Tully and other committee members referred to Greek tragedies, the Bible, and Shakespearean drama as defining literature that likewise contains disturbing events and images.“There is ugliness and evil in almost everything we teach,” Tully said. “If we go through every year in school, the books have darkness in them. But it’s our job as teachers to make students aware of what’s out there and how to analyze it.”Parent and committee member Deborah Reichhold said her son read “Things Fall Apart” last year when he was 15.“Now, if he were 12 or 13, I might object,” she said. “Did it disturb him? Yes. But it also disturbed him discussing the holocaust in eighth and ninth grade. I believe these things are great opportunities to sit down at the table and discuss difficult, dark issues. This is real life. Even in Douglas County, we have child beatings, murders and teen suicides. I want to discuss the hard stuff when they’re in high school. The positive stuff is easy.”Serving on the review committee, DHS Principal Marty Swisher said he recently re-read the novel and concluded it was not too graphic for sophomores. He said the passage where Okonkwo kills his adopted son doesn’t even include a description of blood.“Is it uncomfortable? Yes. Is it very graphic? No,” he said. Swisher questioned whether removing contested passages from instruction would fundamentally alter the message of the book. He also said those disturbing events pale in comparison to the evening news.“I have two sons who both read this novel, and I have no issue with exposure to it at the 10th grade level,” he said. “The power of this novel is that as far away from my value system as it is, it forces me into the perspective of another person.”Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School librarian and committee member Susan Bullard agreed that exposure to other modes of life “can be eye-opening.”“It’s hard to control what a person reads,” she said, “and what influences them.”DHS student Austin Bachman admitted that sections of “Things Fall Apart” were disturbing, but he said the book didn’t influence his values. “We were analyzing it as part of world literature and as an example of the tragic hero,” he said. “We were just learning about it from an intellectual perspective.”For Minden resident Anne Jeton, whose father served as an ambassador in Africa, the novel has tremendous historical value. She said she expects her children, by the time they’re in high school, to be able to think critically about world issues.“When we start to challenge books, it’s a serious issue,” she said. “And it needs to be open to the public.”On Tuesday, DCSD Director of Curriculum Rommy Cronin said Toskin had 30 school days to appeal the committee’s decision to the assistant superintendent of education services and then, if so desired, to the superintendent and school board.n Scott Neuffer can be reached at email@example.com or 782-5121, ext. 217.