Posted by: Lizzie Ross | September 26, 2010

A conundrum

Short stories: Ernest Hemingway, “Hills Like White Elephants”, Stephen King, “Survivor Type”, Laura Lippman, “The Crack Cocaine Diet”, and David Sedaris, “I Like Boys”

You can read Hemingway’s story here, but the others you’ll have to find in a local library or bookstore. They’re all relatively short, and Sedaris’s is particularly funny (if you like his snarky style–I could hear his voice and tone as I read it, so familiar from his work on This American Life).

In an earlier post, I mentioned that a teacher in New Hampshire had lost his job as a result of a challenge. My facts were wrong: she had resigned her job, with no explicit mention of any challenge. But her resignation came just after a challenge to the curriculum she had designed, so we’re left to wonder if there was a connection after all.

The plot: the stories listed above were included in a “Love/Gender/Family” unit for an elective high school English lit course. Someone checked the stories (Lippman’s title is surely a give-away), and a fairly large group of parents protested. “Not our values”, the wrong “political agenda”, bad behaviors (drug use, homosexuality, cannibalism) are promoted, etc.

My conundrum here is that, while I support each student’s right to read, I also support a parent’s right to complain about what her child is being asked to read (more free speech, and kudos for paying attention and caring). Also, I’m especially curious about how the curriculum designer justified including a story about self-cannibalism in a unit on love, gender and family. Weird!

Which leads to my next point. Michelle Kerns wonders if the curriculum designer had lost sight of the purpose of English class: to teach students about good writing by showing them good writing, and then helping them learn how to create good writing of their own. (See Stanley Fish on a similar argument re college writing courses.) I agree with her.

I have to admit that I have not read any of  the King or much of the Lippman stories, but I feel safe in posing this question: surely there are better writers out there, with stories about family, love and gender. Even weird ones. What about Poe? His plots should be gruesome enough to meet the needs of King fans.

I can see the attraction of the enigma in Hemingway’s story — just exactly what is this couple contemplating? — and it’s surprising that the story would be challenged. Kerns mentions “statutory rape”, but I suspect that Hemingway’s decision to call the female lead “the girl” doesn’t imply that she’s under-aged. But, evidently, even the hint of thinking about the possibility of maybe having an abortion is enough to rile some people. (The word abortion never appears in the story, and at the end the couple are still unresolved about what to do.)

Kerns points out that all the sex, violence, drug use etc. in the stories can be seen almost daily on cable TV (not to mention on line), which begs the question: what do these parents think they’re protecting their children from? Why is the printed word so much more threatening than any visual scene from a movie, television program, or video game?

Well, I’ll never figure that one out. It may be that these parents are on top of all media with which their children interact, and these stories represented the first time their children had gotten a hint of the existence of crack cocaine, homosexuality, cannibalism, heroin, rape, and abortion.

As if!


  1. Interesting points and questions.

    For me the obvious permanence of the written word is the most threatening factor for some people…print is permanent, not a Word-document, can´t be deleted and is meant to last forever. “Forever” –another challenging (threatening?) term;-)

  2. I agree with what Marty said on the permanency of text, of course, but also that, as dutiful taxpayers and concerned parents, the morality brigade tends towards being hypercritical of schools in a way that they’re not about other segments of the culture. It’s one thing for the youth of America to be corrupted by the internet, TV and movies (and music and everything else), but once schools get controversial, everyone’s up in arms-nevermind that schools being challenging often has a point to it in the end, whereas the rest of media is generally controversy for controversy’s sake. That being the case, it may just be that society doesn’t like there being any sense made of how humans deal with rape, abortion, sexuality, drugs, life, you name it.

    Good post and thanks for the reminder about it being banned books week.

  3. Marty and Rob–Thanks for your reminders, both of which are excellent points, especially the one about being a “dutiful taxpayer”. Since I’m one as well, does that mean I can get the local, state and federal governments to stop wasting my money on projects of which I don’t approve?

  4. Whish it would be that way;-)

  5. …aaahhh–of course, I wish!

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