Reversing a split vote, the Coeur d’Alene School Board on Monday unanimously approved the Aldous Huxley classic “Brave New World” as required reading for seniors, along with 25 other novels for grades 6 through 12.
“It’s gratifying. They did the right thing,” said Eric Louis, a Coeur d’Alene High School English teacher who was among more than 100 people at a special board meeting to consider the novels. “We’re a district that understands … honoring academic freedom. It’s a good day for the district.”
About three-quarters of those attending indicated that they wanted the novels on the list approved for use in classrooms. Several novels remain to be considered, a process likely to occur within the next two months.
At a November meeting, the board split 2-2 over “Brave New World” with member Bill Hemenway absent. Board member Sid Fredrickson said his vote against the book as required reading was in part to tie the vote so all board members would be present to make the final decision.
Board member Vern Newby said he reversed his vote this time because “I did my homework.” He said after having initial concerns about the sexual content and repetitive nature of the book, he spoke with teachers and learned how they were using the book in the classroom. Doing so convinced him of its value, he said.
“I just wanted to be sure it was being used in the best manner possible in our classrooms,” Newby said.
The district finds itself in the difficult position of evaluating novels during the course of the school year – depriving teachers of the ability to use them in classrooms – because the novels were not reviewed during a standard curriculum evaluation process, an error for which district officials have taken responsibility.
Speakers on Monday night ranged in age from high school freshmen to grandparents of students. Those in favor of the novels spoke of the importance of teaching children to think for themselves and to evaluate sometimes uncomfortable topics in a controlled environment with a trained educator as a guide.
Those opposed protested their children’s exposure to the profanity and vulgarity that prohibited passages from one book being read aloud at the board meeting. They said the district’s “opt-out” policy was unfair because it singled students out and embarrassed them. Students or parents who are uncomfortable with a novel can select an alternate but then are excluded from classroom discussions.
“The problem is some materials are just not appropriate for classroom use,” Mary Jo Finney said, asking: “Will this board please clarify how vulgar, profane and sexually explicit materials will be handled in the classroom?”
Coeur d’Alene Superintendent Hazel Bauman said guidelines have been distributed to all teachers requiring that such passages not be read aloud in classrooms.
Sam Fortis, a 15-year-old Lake City High School freshman, said the idea of removing books from classrooms makes him feel that parents, educators and administrators don’t trust him to reach his own conclusions about the concepts in books. He said his teachers’ smooth handling of discussions on literary topics including racial violence and sex have helped him learn and grow through “mature discussion.”
“The wide variety of books in the schools teaches kids to be well-rounded and open-minded human beings,” Fortis said.
“When you take away the books you think are not OK for me, you are taking away my freedom of thought. You are taking away pieces of me.”