Book banning and the American Way of education

Commentary

The banning of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book in a Tennessee school district is yet another example of the growing deterioration of American society

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, a school district in the city of Athens, TN voted to ban a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust due to “inappropriate language” and an illustration of a nude woman, according to minutes from a board meeting. The book, of course, is Maus, by Art Spiegelman. Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for the work that tells the story of his Jewish parents living in 1940s Poland and depicts him interviewing his father about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor.

In the book, Jews are depicted as mice (“maus” is the German word for mouse) while Nazi’s are portrayed as cats, the mouse’s classic predator.

If you haven’t seen or read the book, it’s in two parts. Here’s an image from one page.

(Maus has never, unfortunately, been adapted into a movie. But at the end of this story I’ll insert YouTube  links to direct you to the entire opus, videoed with professional voice-overs of Spiegelman’s words.)

Minutes from the January 10th school board meeting (reporting of this meeting only surfaced this week as the world was preparing to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1945) tell of objections over some of the language used in the book. At first, Director of Schools Lee Parkison suggested redacting it “to get rid of the eight curse words and a picture of a woman that was objected to.” The picture is of a nude Jewish woman, drawn as a mouse.

School Board Member Tony Allman said, “It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote (emphasis mine) this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy.”

Jonathan Pierce, the board member who initiated the vote to remove Maus from the eighth-grade curriculum, said during the meeting that the Holocaust should be taught in schools, but this was not the book to do it.

“Our children need to know about the Holocaust, they need to understand that there are several pieces of history … that shows depression or suppression of certain ethnicities (emphasis mine). It’s not acceptable today,” Pierce said, according to the meeting minutes. “…the wording in this book is in direct conflict of some of our policies.”

Apparently when more open minds prevailed in Athens*, Maus was deemed appropriate to include in the district’s eighth-grade English language arts curriculum.

Not anymore. Not during this current American, no, global, resurgence of anti-Semitism.

*(Do you, as I, see the irony of the banning of this book happening in a place called Athens, a city named after ancient Athens, the center for the arts, learning and philosophy; the home of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum; the city-state widely referred to as the cradle of Western civilization and the birthplace of democracy.)

The board’s decision came amid a wave of conservative-sponsored legislation and other actions to pull books from schools, with other banned works including Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

If there is any good news coming out of this travesty of a decision it’s this: since the banning, sales of Maus have increased dramatically! Just days after news of the banning, two editions of Maus reached the top 20 on Amazon.com and are in limited supply. Neither book was in the top 1,000 at the beginning of the week.

And, in another Tennessee city, Knoxville, the comic bookstore, Nirvana Comics said they would give away copies of the book because they “believe it is a must-read for everyone.” They said all students need to do is ask for a copy by calling them or reaching out on social media.

Is the Athens school board decision simply an isolated instance of ignorance? Not if you believe the numbers from this Claims Conference Poll taken in 2020.

  • Among Americans under 40:
    • 48% couldn’t name a single Holocaust concentration camp;
    • 63% didn’t know that about 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust;
    • 11% think the Holocaust was caused by Jews.

Can you imagine what those numbers are in Tennesse?

I have a personal interest in this story for many reasons. One, in particular, is my connection to Tennessee where two great-nieces and a great-nephew have “benefited” from a Tennessee education system. Hopefully, after I encourage them to read this post we can discuss the issues and make it, for them and for me, a teaching moment. Oh, how they love their Uncle Ted!

But there’s also a related Tennessee story that bears a reminding. Athens, an hour drive from Knoxville is also a 30-minute drive from another East Tennessee city, Dayton. Why is this important? Because in 1925, Dayton was the site of the “Scopes Monkey Trial” in which high school teacher, John T. Scopes, was accused of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which had made it unlawful to teach human evolution in any state-funded school.

Butler, a Tennessee state representative and farmer, was also the head of the World Christian Fundamentals Association. Lobbying state legislatures to pass anti-evolution laws, he succeeded when the Butler Act was passed in Tennessee. Butler’s reasoning for establishing the law came down to, in his own words, “I didn’t know anything about evolution … I’d read in the papers that boys and girls were coming home from school and telling their fathers and mothers that the Bible was all nonsense.”

(If you’re interested in learning more, try to watch the film “Inherit the Wind” (it’s on Amazon Prime), a dramatization of the Scopes trial with the opposing lawyers, Henry Drummond (patterned after Clarence Darrow) and Matthew Harrison Brady (patterned after William Jennings Bryan), played by Spencer Tracey and Fredric March, respectively.)

Cover art

And there you have it. 97 years after the passing of the Butler Act and the Scopes trial (Scopes was found guilty but the verdict was later overturned on a technicality) virtually nothing has changed in Tennessee. And unfortunately, in most Red States.

To wit:

On Monday, newly elected Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin announced that he’s created a “tip line” for parents to report instances of school officials behaving inappropriately, by which he means teaching “divisive” subjects like critical race theory. Wait, what was the word used by the Gestapo in Nazi Germany and Stasi in Communist East Germany? You know, as the German newspaper Der Spiegel put it, the word used to describe: “Neighbors reporting on neighbors, schoolchildren informing on classmates, university students passing along information on other students, managers spying on employees and Communist bosses denouncing party members.” As Yale historian Timothy Snyder put it, “Denunciation.”

How low have we gotten when the governor of a state can use Nazi tactics to get his way?

I wanted to close with this – a very new, very chilling, short, fictional, documentary-style spot created for the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum. It was created and directed by Eric Hirshberg, a former advertising creative director and company CEO who, since leaving the business world, has devoted time to supporting important causes out of “Will Work for Change,” a creative network he founded to bring seasoned creative expertise and marketing to non-profits and mission-based organizations. 

As you watch the film bear in mind the opening two frames.

Could it? You be the judge.

Finally, as promised, Maus in video, by Art Spiegelman.

Maus Part 1

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Maus Part 2

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Published by Ted Block

Ted Block is a veteran “Mad Man,” having spent 45+ years in the advertising industry. During his career, he was media director of several advertising agencies, including Benton & Bowles in New York and Foote, Cone and Belding in San Francisco; account management director on clients as varied as Clorox, Levi’s and the California Raisin Advisory Board (yes, Ted was responsible for the California Dancing Raisins campaign); and regional director for Asia based in Tokyo for Foote, Cone where he was also the founding president of FCB’s Japanese operations. Ted holds a Bachelor’s degree in communications from Queens College and, before starting in advertising, served on active duty as an officer on USS McCloy (DE-1038) in the U.S. Navy. Besides writing Around the Block, Ted is also a guest columnist for the Palm Beach Post.

4 thoughts on “Book banning and the American Way of education

  1. I assume that you won’t be surprised that I of course have Maus and Maus II (first edition). Also, The Contract With G-d Trilogy, The Plot (about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion), and Fagin the Jew, graphic novels by Will Eisner (creator of The Spirit and coiner of the term “graphic novel”).

    Also have the comic book of when Ben Grimm (The Fantastic 4’s Thing) was bar mitzvahed. He should’ve had the reception at Leonard’s…

    Sent from my iPhone

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    1. And what do you read for fun? “The Merchant of Venice” as a companion to “Fagin the Jew? As far as Ben Grim’s Bar Mitzvah, a shoulda, coulda, woulda, alternative to Leonard’s (of Great Neck) might have been The Huntington Town House depending on where on Longuyland he lived.

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  2. VERY scary times – sad part is the truth being “stepped” on. Where are the usually vigilant Jews in these towns and cities? And the righteous gentiles? Thanks for this Around the Block!

    Love to you both, Sue

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