Late last month, the Durham District School Board removed To Kill a Mockingbird from the required curriculum after a complaint about the use of the n-word in the book.
Harper Lee’s celebrated novel will still be available for study but only to students who ask for it.
The scandal in Durham isn’t the board’s decision to abandon the novel but how it arrived at its decision.
Rather than use the complaint as an opportunity to discuss the sort of literature the people of Durham prize, board administrators struck the novel from the curriculum in a closed-doors meeting without consulting its English teachers.
English teachers, left out of the loop, wrongly (but naturally) interpreted the board’s unilateral decision as a book ban.
And instead of sending an educator to clear up the confusion, the board sent a spokesperson to explain the change to The Toronto Star.
Said the spokesperson: “You don’t choose one book and say, ‘OK, this is the book we’re going to study as a whole class.’ Those days are over. We have a very diverse population of students.”
There are good reasons not to teach To Kill a Mockingbird. For example, it’s probably a good idea to ask Canadian students to study a Canadian novel.
But shielding students from racist language is one of the least compelling reasons.
So is “because diversity.”
Diversity is a strength. A diversity of views enriches and revitalizes complacent communities.
But it’s also possible for communities to become so diverse that, lacking a core of common knowledge and values, they atomize and dissolve.
In an era of diversity, it’s more important than ever that educators select literature that teaches the values and knowledge that will hold together a diversifying community.
Instead of abdicating its responsibility to write a curriculum, the Durham board should have looked for literature that forms students and shapes a common culture.
Rather than issuing clichés about our brave new diverse world, Durham needs to develop a reading list that puts students in orbit around the same star – so they don’t spin off into their own distant galaxies.
Finally, in using diversity to excuse itself from providing curriculum leadership, Durham propagates the fraudulent notion that literature needs to appeal to a student’s cultural idiosyncrasies to be interesting or relevant. Or, to put it another way, that literature must be safe and relatable to be accessible.
It’s fair to say a student may not have the life experience to access a mature story. But it’s patronizing to say students can only relate to – and learn from – literature that originates with people of their particular race or cultural background.
One goal of studying literature is to understand the lives of other people. Students of literature must learn to inhabit the positions of the people in the stories, no matter how foreign these people may at first seem.
When we understand strangers, we see how they are right and how they are wrong. We see what’s common to us.
The failure to understand strangers is a failure of imagination, heart and intellect – the worst sort of failure.
If students can’t find a way to understand strangers in a book, holding together a diverse community of strangers will be impossible. Steering a culture away from the sins of the past will be even harder.
What’s sad is that the English teachers whom the board didn’t consult might have told them this.
Troy Media columnist Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto.
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