In response to a parent who had sincere concerns about the maturity of the curriculum presented to her eighth-grader, I supported our school’s inclusion of controversial works.
Our intention with the selection of age-appropriate works in an intellectually rigorous setting is to challenge our students. This means that we need to engage them and we need to put forth messages of strong character, of the best of the human spirit. Students of this grade are not motivated by milquetoast, sanitized works; they need meatier and more compelling topics–mature topics. The selections we’ve chosen have strong adversaries and very difficult circumstances. This is by design. It’s only against the backdrop of the most intense struggle that the true height of human aspiration can stand in strong contrast. When a protagonist succeeds against the most dire odds, it bespeaks an elevation of humanity that would be impossible to create were the circumstances not such trying ones. More directly: it’s not heroic to succeed in trivial situations. Only tragedy can reveal the full bloom of humanity’s valiance.
At CSCA we don’t close our eyes to the darker elements of the human condition, but instead use such circumstances as object lessons, as opportunities to build character. Our students, especially those who have been at CSCA for years, already have been developing a strength of character belying their age. We act on this strength and challenge them with works befitting their maturity. This is exactly in line with our wider philosophy of holding high expectations, all the while being acutely conscious of the temperament we are asking of our students. They need these materials now because we expect more of them than other schools might.
I’ll take this opportunity to address each book in turn. Their themes overlap, but each work merits discussion on its own.
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is, I believe, the least controversial of the selections. It was by coincidence the first selection ever for the All Pikes Peak Reads program, begun in 2002 and sponsored by the Pikes Peak Library District. Well over 1000 copies were being read simultaneously throughout the city at that time. Part of our purview is to make our students culturally aware; this is awareness of the most direct kind. Regarding the work specifically, its exploration of whether humans are fundamentally good or evil could not be more pivotal to the development of intellectually fit citizens. Within the culture of injustice and racism, it elevates the precepts of justice. It advocates equality. It shows intense strength of character as Atticus Finch stands in direct defiance of overt racism. Directly relevant to our students, it charts Scout’s moral elevation from innocence to adulthood. It shows overall that the lessons of sympathy and understanding can create a social conscience. It’s an uplifting work of the highest order, especially given the racially charged context of the time. It is a masterpiece, and to deprive our eighth-graders of it would be educational dereliction.
Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings poignantly recounts the first seventeen years of her life. Her circumstances were dire. And in reflecting upon them we’ve chosen to present only certain selections of this work as part of our curriculum. It’s no secret that her upbringing placed her in stark exposure to behaviors that need not be part of this curriculum. Even after we cut those out we still feel that the broader themes of perseverance and resisting racial oppression are well represented. She stands as a living, tangible expression of the success that can ensue when one’s beginning were grounded in helpless rage and indignation. Her life is a testament to standing one’s ground. She is the paragon of self-advocacy. We can only hope that our students garner even a fraction of her courage and demand for self-expression.
The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck, continues these themes. She uses the premise of the nourishing power of the land to express moral piety and good sense. Along the way the novel explores the oppression of women in the Chinese culture. This was an unfortunate and difficult period for that country, and all the more instructive for its historical truth. The book is at times unpleasant. So is life. All honest historical and even religious works agree with this. Yet those characters who are sympathetic are those who maintain their moral compass, their reverence for the land, against great trauma and upheaval. Another useful aspect of the work is its presentation of the Chinese as having completely different values, of thinking in ways unfamiliar to Westerners—even though their basic dreams and needs are the same. This is a valuable lesson for citizens in today’s shrinking world. Finally, the story offers a useful historical setting, giving foundation to the eventual alliance of China and the USA in World War II.
In none of these works are mature topics or violence treated gratuitously. But we judge that in our educational model students rise to the maturity that these works call for, and grow dramatically as citizens and scholars for the experience. In doing so we’re setting standards only for what the school expects of its students. We explicitly do not care to intrude upon the standards that families set for themselves.
On a broader topic, the breadth of cultural exposure in a Core Knowledge curriculum is not guaranteed to be free from offense. For example, some may object to the nudity in sculptures by Michelangelo or paintings by Rubens. Others may take umbrage at the racial presentations in Huckleberry Finn. Jews might wish that references to Christmas be excised. We can’t, nor would we wish to, expurgate all possible sources of offense. Such censorial actions rob students of the rich expanse of human accomplishment. Recognizing our role as guardians of appropriate cultural exposure, we nonetheless do not apologize for a curriculum that has the full breadth of vitality represented by the paragons of achievement in literature, art, and science.
I want to thank you for expressing so directly and fervently your opinions on what occurs in your son’s classroom. I know that this is a topic of critical importance for you, and one about which you are passionate. We respect that. It’s passionate parents who founded this school and who continue to guide it in the highest expression of respect for our children—their education. I know that we agree on how much our children’s schooling matters, even if we disagree on the specific means of implementing it.
Very best regards,
Founder and Board President
Colorado Springs Charter Academy