Mary Jo Finney thinks one of the novellas Coeur d’Alene high school students read is unworthy of its standing as an American classic.
“The story is neither a quality story nor a page turner,” Finney said of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”
Finney and three other members of a district curriculum review committee have recommended “Of Mice and Men” be pulled from classroom instruction and made available only on a voluntary, small-group basis in ninth-grade English classes. The school board will vote on the recommendation next month.
Its use of profanity – “bastard,” for instance, and “God damn” – makes the 1937 book unsuitable for freshmen, said Finney, a parent who has objected to other books in the Coeur d’Alene School District curriculum over the years.
She said she counted 102 profanities in its 110 pages, noting that “the teachers actually had the audacity to have students read these profanities out loud in class.”
In addition to the profanity, the curriculum committee found the story of two migrant ranch hands struggling during the Great Depression too “negative.”
The book is of high literary quality, committee member Eugene Marano said, and he’s not so bothered by the coarse language. But the gloomy tone gives him pause, especially the bleak ending.
“I thought it was too dark for ninth-graders,” said Marano, a retired Kootenai County magistrate judge. “It needs to be in a small group to explain away the dark part of it.”
Steinbeck’s novella is one of the most challenged books of this century, according to the American Library Association. It’s also one of the best known works of the Nobel Prize- and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and has been adapted often for stage and screen.
“It always disappoints me when a school tries to take something away like that,” Coeur d’Alene City Librarian Bette Ammon said.
The words Steinbeck chose accurately portrayed how the characters of that time and place would have spoken to each other, Ammon said.
“I just think that any book that is considered a classic and potentially could be something that informs your life past schooling, it’s unfortunate if people don’t get a chance to read it,” she said.
School Board Trustee Dave Eubanks, a nonvoting member of the curriculum committee, said he thinks reclassifying “Of Mice and Men” as an optional read for freshmen is a reasonable compromise.
“Nobody’s banning books or burning books,” he said. “There was just too darn much cussing. It was on almost every single page of the novella.”
The language was common in the 1930s among homeless people and migrant workers and is not particularly shocking today, Eubanks said. “We’re not talking about the f-word or anything like that,” he said.
But the repetition of profanity made several committee members uncomfortable, he said.
“We have a lot of families in our community, moms and dads, who are trying to raise their children with traditional family values and traditional religious values. … I don’t think we should be undermining them,” Eubanks said.
The committee is reviewing about 50 titles used in English classes in grades 6 through 12 to make sure they’re relevant to student needs under the new Idaho Common Core standards.
“Of Mice and Men” is among 11 titles teachers may choose from, and it’s a popular choice because it’s short. In addition, juniors read Steinbeck’s most acclaimed work, “The Grapes of Wrath.”
School Board Chairwoman Christa Hazel said she opposes limiting student access to “Of Mice and Men.”
“It’s been taught for many years without an issue in this district,” Hazel said. “We’ve had no parents really complaining about it.”
She also pointed out that the district already asks families to approve of their kids participating in classes with controversial material. Families that don’t consent are offered alternative material.
“I trust that those policies in place are adequate protection,” Hazel said. “I also believe we need to trust the professional judgment of our teachers.”
Eubanks said, “We do want our kids to read Steinbeck,” whom he called a titan of American literature. “It was just decided that that particular book probably should not be required reading of ninth-graders as it is right now.”
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