Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Slaughterhouse-Five” is considered a modern classic. That doesn’t mean it’s a particularly easy read. Indeed, it deals with some fairly heady topics. When I first encountered it in high school, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. But it sure made me think, which, in my view, is what a good novel should do.
The school board voted 4-0 recently to ban “Slaughterhouse-Five” and another book, Sarah Ockler’s “Twenty Boy Summer,” after a local resident complained that the books teach ideas contrary to the Bible.
Wesley Scroggins had originally targeted three books, but the board voted to keep one, Laurie Halse Anderson’s award-winning “Speak,” on the shelves. According to the Springfield News-Leader, Scroggins “challenged the use of the books and lesson plans in Republic schools, arguing they teach principles contrary to the Bible.”
After the vote, which removes the books from the curriculum and the school library, Scroggins said, “I congratulate them for doing what’s right and removing the two books. It’s unfortunate they chose to keep the other book.”
Actually, what’s unfortunate it that the school board didn’t stand up for church-state separation and the freedom to learn. And it’s unfortunate that the education of students at Republic High School is being held hostage by such narrow-minded people.
It might also be unconstitutional.
In 1982, the Supreme Court struck down a book censorship plan at a New York school district. Members of the school board in Island Trees had banned eight books, including “Slaughterhouse-Five,” after a statewide right-wing pressure group started a campaign against them.
Board members agreed, calling the books “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.”
Justice William Brennan led a court plurality in striking down the censorship scheme.
Brennan wrote, “In brief, we hold that local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to ‘prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.’ Such purposes stand inescapably condemned by our precedents.”
In 1993, a school board in Olathe, Kan., ordered the removal of the book “Annie on My Mind” from a school library because it deals with homosexuality. Parents who supported the novel sued and won. A federal court ruled that public schools may not ban books “based on their personal social, political and moral views.”
It sounds like the school board in Republic did exactly that. One fundamentalist complained that the books offended his interpretation of the Bible — so out went the books.
If there’s any silver lining in this sorry incident, it’s this: Telling young people that they can’t or shouldn’t read a certain book or listen to a certain CD almost always causes a run on that book or CD.
After all, it’s imperative to find out what it is that the adults don’t want you to see or hear.
So I say to the students of Republic High: Get your hands on a copy of “Slaughterhouse-Five.” It’s worth your time. And if you’re having trouble finding a copy around town, drop me a line. I know a source at a used-book store who can round up as many as you need.