By editorial board • 

Thoughtful process produces thoughtful result in Dayton

The books “All American Boys,” “The Hate U Give,” “The Things We Carry,” “Sold” and “The Glass Castle” have a lot in common. And that’s not because they just survived a challenge to their continued inclusion in the language arts curriculum at Dayton High School.

They deal with searing social issues. They have won broad critical acclaim and a boatload of literary awards. They have enjoyed long runs atop leading best-seller lists. They are commonly included in language arts curriculum in American high schools. They have proven popular fodder for followup movies. And at least four of the five consistently rank among the most challenged or banned works of youth fiction in the U.S.

Why the controversy?

One element is thematic, as the books deal with racism, sexuality, suicide, mental illness, prostitution, war, substance abuse, police brutality and gender identity. The other is textual, as the books include phrasing in the profane vernacular of the street

Why the popularity?

These themes are the same ones many American teens are confronting in their own lives today. This vernacular is the same one many of today’s teens are employing, at least when out of earshot of parents and teachers.

The issue was raised in Dayton by local parent Caralee Johnston.

She said her intent was to generate some frank district-parent dialog rather than mount a formal public challenge, but we think the district made the right call in initiating the public reconsideration process established in its administrative rules.

That process played out remarkably smoothly, to the credit of all concerned. As a result, the books will stay, but elements of parental notice and involvement will be strengthened and the opt-out process made clearer.

In many parts of the country, book challenges have been carried to shrill, frightening and decidedly anti-democratic excess in recent times, typically under a parental rights banner. According to the American Library Association, bans and restrictions shot to a 20-year high last year, with no letup in sight.

Arkansas has enacted legislation criminalizing the provision of “harmful” materials to minors by librarians or book sellers. Idaho, Iowa, Indiana, Texas and other conservative- leaning states have tilted the balance legislatively in less dramatic ways.

Meanwhile, legislative takeover of the largest school district in Texas led to conversion of libraries into disciplinary centers at 28 schools in Houston. The displaced librarians were told they would have to “transition to other roles” to retain their employment.

Here in Oregon, spot fires have erupted over public reading material in Crook, Klamath and Clackamas counties, leading to some ugly exchanges and damaging outcomes.

This plank from the Idaho’s Republican Party platform explains the genesis of the national school challenge movement:

“The Idaho Republican Party recognizes that children are a heritage of the Lord. We believe parents, not the state, have a sacred duty and a legal right to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their temporal and spiritual needs, and to teach them to be law-abiding citizens.”

There are two problems with that sort of heavy-handed dictate. It injects religion into government, in violation of America’s separation of church and state mandate, and it makes parents rulers of the realm, instead of partners in the process.

There is, we believe, a big difference between trying to pull books from public and school libraries, where personal choice rules, and questioning the inclusion of books in a school curriculum, where such choice is significantly restricted.

In the former, the impetus is to limit access to other members of the community who may harbor very different views and values. In the latter, it is to limit access to your own children in deference to your own views and values.

It seemed to us that the curricular issue raised in Dayton merited a fair and thoughtful look, and the district did its best to provide one. It seemed that the district and its patrons engaged in a constructive exchange, worthy of being emulated all across the country as we address the hot-button cultural issues dividing us.


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