There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the decision of the McMinn County Board of Education in Tennessee to remove Maus from its 8th Grade ELA curriculum. Much of this discussion has focused on the claim that Board has “banned” Maus from the school; this had led some to claim that the Board did so in to move away from teaching about the Holocaust.
Fortunately, we can assess these claims easily as the transcript of the Board meeting is available online.
One of the Board members did state that the Board was considering banning Maus. (This same Board member was also skeptical that removing the text was appropriate, noting both that he was concerned about the removal based on “a few words”, and that he had read the background on this author and the series, talked to some educators, and it is a highly critically acclaimed and a well reviewed series and book context”.) But what was actually under discussion was not the removal of Maus from the school, but its removal as an anchor text in a module on the Holocaust.
The reasons for this had nothing to do with objections to teaching the Holocaust. Indeed, several Board members stated how important it was for students to learn about it, noting that the module on the Holocaust involved students reading “news articles from BBC, Los Angeles Times, Guardian, survivor stories, and excerpts from other books….. [and] There is even a section where we go to the Jewish Virtual Library and look at some selections from that.” The concern was primarily about the “objectionable” language used in the book–words that “if a student went down the hallway and said this, our disciplinary policy says they can be disciplined, and rightfully so”. Secondary concerns included the presence of a nude picture–of a female mouse!–the fact that some of the objectionable language involved a boy “cussing out” his father, which wasn’t respectful, and that the author Art Spiegelman had drawn illustrations for Playboy (!).
Possible solutions short of removing the book were suggested–such as whiting out the offensive words completely (deemed a violation of copyright, and so unacceptable), whiting them out partially (but then the kinds could guess them!) and writing to Spiegelman to ask if their removal would be permissible (that would take too long). After canvassing the possibilities the Board decided that despite the merits of Maus (one Board member said she would still teach it to her children) since the language it contained violated the speech code of the school it should be removed from the curriculum.
Note that all that was decided was that Maus should be removed from the curriculum. The Board members didn’t vote to remove the text from the school. Maus wasn’t banned.
Was this a good decision? In my view, no. Against the horrors of the Holocaust a few “damns” don’t mean a damn. But from the perspective of the Board members the “cussing” was clearly extremely offensive–and ancillary to the main message of Maus. And they couldn’t find a way to keep Maus without the wording that violated the speech code to which they required students to adhere. This wasn’t a good decision, but it wass an understandable one.
More understandable, in fact, than claiming falsely that Maus was banned because of the putative far-right sympathies of the McMinn County Board of Education.