I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, March 15, 2013

Reform = Repression

Updates below.

Anyone surprised that adherents of the reform "movement" are now banning books has not been paying attention:
Is there a free speech storm brewing at Lane Tech?
Here is what I am hearing.
CPS suits apparently sent a directive to Lane (and how many other high schools?) on March 13th, 2013 to remove copies of the graphic novel, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.
Persepolis deals with the Iranian Revolution and issues of intolerance. The author wrote a sequel. An award winning animated movie was made in 2007.
But the staff at Lane Tech’s library were directed to remove the book from their shelves.
I have been told that some students reported the removal of Persepolis in a journalism course. As reporters, those students called CPS central offices to try to find out what had happened and why the books were being removed.
On March 14 Lane staff members received the following email:
Yesterday afternoon, one of the Network Instructional Support Leaders stopped by my office and informed me (per a directive given during the Chief of Schools meeting on March 11) that all ISLs were directed to physically go to each school in the Network by Friday (3/15) to:*Confirm that Persepolis is not in the library,*Confirm that it has not been checked out by a student or teacher,*Confirm with the school principal that it is not being used in any classrooms,*And to collect the autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi from all classrooms and the Library. I was not provided a reason for the collection of Persepolis. If I learn more I will inform all staff. [emphasis mine]
That's from the terrific blogger Fred Klonsky out in Chicago, possibly the reformiest city in America. A city where an unelected school board is populated by unaccountable plutocrats like Penny Prtizker (Barack Obama's good buddy). A city where schools are closed on the mayor's whim for no apparent reason. A city that names its segregating charter schools after obnoxious, living billionaires (could you at least have the decency to fake a little humility?). A city whose leaders have targeted the head of the teachers union because she dares not to be intimidated by them.

We've always had our own members of the Taliban here in America, ready to leap at the first chance to burn a pile of books. But I'm so old that I remember a time when these zealots had to actually justify themselves: they had to stand in front of the public and make their ridiculous arguments that Kurt Vonnegut's satire or J.D. Salinger's use of the "F" word was somehow such an affront to the nation that age-appropriate children could never partake of their words. These fools and moral scolds had to put their sanctimony and idiocy out in the open for all to see.

We've apparently now "evolved" past that. In communities like Chicago, no one in power has to justify himself to the people; it's just assumed that us poor slobs will cater to the whims of our betters because... well, because they're just better than we are, OK? We just need to understand that if they decide to ban a book, it's because they know what's best for our kids. Same with school closings and testing and charterization and co-locations and teacher evaluations and school day length and all the other "reforms" they love so much.

It's all for our kids, don't you see? Not for their kids, mind you, but it would be impolite to discuss such things...

Persepolis is a beautiful book; I urge you to read it (I haven't yet read the sequel). Ironically, it's about a girl growing up under the repressive Iranian regime: a ruling class of self-satisified moralists, lording over a failed state, believing in their own infallibility and demanding that children parrot back doctrine rather than think for themselves.

Persepolis is exactly the sort of book you would want high school students to read, if you wanted them to grow up to be critical thinkers and skeptics of those who hold power. Perhaps that's why the bureaucrats of the Chicago Public Schools and their leash holders fear the book so much.

An excerpt (click to expand):

Throughout human history, autocrats have used education in an attempt to breed compliance. And if their parents dare to demand an education for their children that encourages them to be critical thinkers, those parents are roundly criticized and/or mocked.

Just to be clear: I'm not implying that the plutocrats and bureaucrats of Chicago are like the mullahs of Iran in that they want a docile, compliant population, and that they intend to dumb down education to achieve this goal. I'm not implying that at all.

I'm stating it outright.

ADDING: CTU just released a statement on this:
“We are surprised ‘Persepolis: A Story of Childhood’ would be banned by the Chicago Public School (CPS) system.  The only place we’ve heard of this book being banned is in Iran. We understand why the district would be afraid of a book like this– at a time when they are closing schools–because it’s about questioning authority, class structures, racism and gender issues. There’s even a part in the book where they are talking about blocking access to education. So we can see why the school district would be alarmed about students learning about these principles.  There’s a lot of merit in Marjane Satrapj’s graphic novel. Not only is it thoughtful, it can be instructive for young people, especially girls. Persepolis can help our students begin to think about the world around them. We hope CPS has not reverted back to the 1950s,” said CTU Financial Secretary Kristine Mayle.”
“We hope this is not a trend in Chicago’s failed school reform experiment. There are rumors that CPS wants to also ban ‘A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Solider’ by Ishmael Beah, and, that too, would be unfortunate. We stand with our educators who see this sudden book banning directive as an unnecessary overreaction,” added CTU spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin.

UPDATE: CTU has updated their post:
“CPS is now claiming Persepolis is banned only from the 7th grade classroom but will be available in school libraries.  Unfortunately 160 elementary schools don’t have libraries—and they know that,” added CTU spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin. “Enough with the Orwellian doublespeak. We support our educators who are fighting to ensure their students have access to ideas about democracy, freedom of speech and self-image.  Let’s not go backward in fear.”
Sounds like back-tracking to me; the email Klonsky published clearly came from a high school. In any case, aside from a few uses of the word "s***" - which I pretty sure I had heard about 100 gajillion times by the time I hit 7th Grade - I don't really recall much in Persepolis that would be objectionable to a 12-year-old. At some point I'll go back and have another look.

In any case, whether this book specifically should be banned or not is beside point: the real issue is that the decision was made with no transparency. Just the way Rahm and the folks who pull his strings like it.

Here's what I think about your "transparency"!

UPDATE: Here's an update from the Trib:
A spokeswoman for the district said district staff sent an email directing the books to be removed after teachers in the Austin-North Lawndale area raised concerns about the book. But she said the directive was not vetted, and didn’t reflect the district’s intent to simply stop 7th-graders from reading the book.
“The message got lost in translation, but the bottom line is, we never sent out a directive to ban the book. We want to make sure there’s an appropriate way to teach it to students given the graphic nature of the novel,” said spokeswoman Becky Carroll.
“We’re not saying remove these from buildings altogether,” she said.  
A student from Lane Tech reached out to Satrapi’s literary agent to let her know the book was being removed.
In a phone interview this morning, Satrapi, who lives in Paris, said she didn’t believe it. It seemed at odds with her image of Chicago. Then emails began pouring in from librarians and other teachers.
“It’s shameful,” she said. “I cannot believe something like this can happen in the United States of America.”
Regarding the district’s concerns about the depiction of torture, Satrapi said:
“These are not photos of torture. It’s a drawing and it’s one frame. I don’t think American kids of seventh grade have not seen any signs of violence. Seventh graders have brains and they see all kinds of things on cinema and the Internet. It’s a black and white drawing and I’m not showing something extremely horrible. That’s a false argument. They have to give a better explanation.”
Satrapi said her goal in writing the book was to make average Iranians seem more human for the rest of the world, rather than be seen as “the axis of evil.”
She said she has heard from 11- and 12-year-olds who have read her book.
“They’ve told me, ‘You’re a human being just like us.’ My goal was to make peace.”
"We're not banning the book! We're just sort of banning it..."

Again, the issue is who makes the decisions and how: a school board elected by the people, or an unaccountable bureaucracy that answers only to a select few?


Ken Houghton said...

By coincidence, I just finished reading The Complete Persepolis last week.

There is sex, drugs, and (very little; geez, Kim Bloody Wilde) rock and roll.

There is nothing the kids wouldn't have seen on Glee or anything on the W\B\ CW. If it were not so long, I would be having my 11-year-old read it. Probably this summer.

It's good (from a strictly personal perspective) to know that she will have a natural advantage over the kids being "educated" in the Chicago school system. But such a "competitive advantage" doesn't make the kids any better as citizens, capitalists, or people. Even if that's the order in which you see them.

shmnyc said...

I suppose I would have to see the book myself to decide, but it doesn't sound like anything a 7th grader couldn't handle, or even most 6th graders I know (my son is in 6th grade).

My problem with books like this is that they're designed more to indoctrinate children into vilifying official enemies than thinking about repression. Mind you, I have a number of friends who left Iran after the Shah fell -- people who struggled against his rule while they lived there, one of whom was in jail for her activities. Books about what happened after Khomeini returned are certainly legitimate, but at a time when the US and Israel are clamoring for war with Iran, they aren't appropriate.

I don't think it should be banned, but if I were a teacher, it would not be on my reading list.