Full disclosure: I am an English teacher, I expose my students to the best literature, I consider John Steinbeck one of America’s greatest writers, and so I teach “Of Mice and Men.”
There, I’ve admitted it. If I taught in northern Idaho, however, my job might be in jeopardy for the Coeur d’Alene School District on Monday decided to recommend that the Steinbeck’s classic novella no longer be taught in classrooms, a final decision to be rendered next month.
The Associated Press reported that a member of the district’s curriculum review committee said that he “thinks the language is too ‘dark’ for ninth-graders.” Do these people have teenagers in their homes?
When one pauses to realize the bombardment of pervasive vulgarity everywhere today, it is astonishing that any school district official in 2015 would object to Steinbeck’s language that, quite frankly, can easily be heard on daytime television. There are worse words used on the Internet and in PG-13 movies not to mention music and video games.
This is not the first time such action has happened to “Of Mice and Men.”
On the American Library Association’s website is a list of dozens of school districts who have either banned the book or seriously discussed such action. Among the reasons given is that the book contains “depressing themes” and “vulgar language,” and “does not represent traditional values.” Sounds like a description of Amazon’s TV show “Transparent.”
“Of Mice and Men” is in good company with other books which have had the threat of banishment such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild,” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” What parent would not be proud of a child who read these books during their high school years?
It wasn’t that long ago in 2011 that here in Glendale there was initial disapproval for having Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” used as a book for advanced 11th graders. While the novel eventually earned approval, it shows that there are certain matters in society that resurface from time to time despite the common thought that such issues are no longer prevalent. Who would have thought riots over police brutality would revisit and haunt today’s times?
The one benefit of these proposed bans is that it calls more attention to the work in question and probably does more good than harm. If I was a teenager and told not to read something, that would be the first thing I would read. Maybe we should ban art museums, operas, vegetables, and charitable work.
I’ve been to Coeur d’Alene and there is a wonderful lunch counter called Hudson’s Hamburgers that has been in continuous operation since 1907. It has withstood the test of time, and the taste of generations. You don’t have to eat meat to recognize that there must be something worthy about the place for it to last as long as it has.
And the same view should be taken of “Of Mice and Men.” Just because one person may not like Steinbeck and might be offended with a word or two doesn’t mean it shouldn’t remain in circulation in classrooms for students to decide for themselves whether it’s worth reading or not.
Lori Wood, Interim Co-Director of the National Steinbeck Center, said that “part of the wide appeal of Steinbeck’s work is that he told the stories of ordinary people and brought their voices to life.”
Studying fine literature is akin to studying human nature. Depriving students of such an experience is detrimental to their lifetime education.