When “Protecting Community Values” Goes Too Far

A month ago, on Monday, January 10, the board of trustees at McMinn County School District in Tennessee voted unanimously to remove graphic novel “Maus” from its curriculum over concerns of “rough language” and age propriety. In actuality, said vulgarity consists of eight words (including “damn”), controversial “nudity” consisted of a small drawing of a nude cat, and “age-inappropriate material” referred to historical representations of murder, violence, and suicide.

The graphic novel—a hybrid of memoir, (auto)biography, and history—depicts author Art Spiegelman interviewing his father about his experiences as a Polish Jew and Holocaust Survivor. Anthropomorphising Jewish people as mice and Germans as cats, “Maus” has, in the words of the US Holocaust Museum, “played a vital role in Holocaust education through sharing detailed and personal experiences of victims and survivors.”

The McMinn County District school board’s decision to remove “Maus” from its curriculum, therefore, signifies an unconscionable turn away from honest and critical education of difficult, but necessary topics, in favor of appeasing niceties and sanitized histories. It represents a lack of understanding towards the importance of teaching truthful, though difficult, personal accounts of history. It represents a lack of care towards the students who will no longer study the text as a part of their schooling. It represents a lack of baseline awareness of the point of Holocaust education. Moreover, it reveals a dangerous faultline in our education system—power to determine curricula rests a precarious amount on those least invested in its honest teaching.

In January, 2020, The New York Times released an analysis of the impact of political interests on the content of US’ textbooks. In the article, journalist Dana Goldstein compares eight social studies textbooks from California and Texas––each by the same author, each under the same publisher, each nominally identical––and highlights key differences in wording, content, and framing; differences caused by political slants of educational authorities in their respective regions. California and Texas textbooks, for instance, might both provide information on the Harlem Renaissance, but the Texas version may contain an addendum that critics “dismissed the quality of literature produced.” Similarly, while two textbooks may both include an annotated version of the Bill of Rights, the California version provides an annotation on the Second Amendment stating that rulings on the Amendment have allowed for certain gun regulations, whereas the Texas version contains a blank space. This is because the textbook publication process in the US takes into account state and regional standards when revising for classroom use. Textbooks that may have initially been written by academics or historical experts are often edited to suit the tastes of state or regions, and in many instances, without input from original authors.

We raise this example to illustrate the extent to which school curricula, particularly those at the state and regional level, are impacted by the personal and political biases of boards, panels, and organizations that hold authority over their development. The McMinn County Board of Trustees, for instance, overrode a Tennessee state curriculum review that approved “Maus” for school curricula. Many of the McMinn County school board’s decisions cited “community values” as reason for “Maus’s” removal. However, community members themselves spoke out against the board’s decision. Local bookstores, such as Nirvana Comics bookstore in Knoxville, offered loans of “Maus” to students, receiving $30,000 in donations to fund the efforts. Politicians, including Tennessee Representatives John Ray Clemmons, Jim Cooper, and Steve Cohen, condemned the ban. Moreover, the removal reveals the sway a few individual actors often hold over the education of many. The McMinn removal decision was made unanimously by a board of ten. In contrast, McMinn County Schools, as a whole, are responsible for close to 5,500 students. A significant number of these students are currently enrolled in McMinn high schools, and will not be directly affected by the removal. However, of the seven McMinn County elementary schools in the district, all students currently in and below eighth grade will be affected by the ban, unless the board reverses its decision or students relocate to other districts.

Education is meant to teach critical thinking, social and historical awareness, and encourage students to reflect on their roles and interactions with our complex world. It cannot shed its responsibility to truth in pursuit of “easier” histories to teach. Society’s failures must be examined, not obscured, and education often serves as the chief tool in this endeavor. “Maus’s” removal stands in opposition to these values. As we students move through our education at Andover and beyond, we must keep both a critical and reflective eye on not only the content, but the curation of our courses. It is only through critical analysis, in concert with the educators that guide us, that we will be prepared to examine where we stand in relation to the world around us. From there, we can deconstruct the harmful structures that pervade our society.