Editorial: ‘Diary’ debate raises uncomfortable questions

The issue of what to do about “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” lives on, as we report on page 1 of today’s issue.

After a recommendation from the Instructional Materials Review Committee to keep “Diary” in the district’s eighth-grade classrooms, at least while its grade-appropriateness can be determined by district educators, an appeal has been filed, which will send the issue to the School Board.

This controversy has caused us to consider some pressing questions.

Who are we, as individuals and as a community? On what do we base our standards for education and behavior? Are there limits to free expression and thought (in this case, in junior high classrooms)? Does the fact that we have accredited, experienced, teachers in our classrooms mean we should absolutely trust them with our kids?

These questions can be uncomfortable for us, both individually or corporately.

They get to the heart of what’s inside us and how we function as individuals and as a society.

Who are we as human members of a local society? The answer to that question will dictate our most basic approach to education.

Do we believe the kids in our district classroom are essentially good, other than typical “growing pains,” normal youthful indiscretions, or more serious factors that corrupt their behavior and cause them to engage in irresponsible or anti-social behavior?

Is the purpose of education to help these kids negotiate the tricky path of life and help them learn to do what should be coming naturally to them – doing the right thing?

Or do we presuppose that our young people are not naturally good, that they need to be taught to do the right thing – sometimes in the form of correction? This view prevailed in our nation until midway through the last century, when it was gradually replaced by the one above.

Or do we subscribe to some blend of the above?

The answer of course, is that all of the above are probably true of us – as a society. There may be about as many answers to those questions as there are residents in the district.

The corollary question is how do we determine what is right?

Should there be an objective standard for our behavior and, by extension, education, or should it be more subjective or relativist: The right answer for me is what I think is right for me, based on my personality, spirituality, circumstances or whatever, unless circumstances prove me wrong. What’s our standard? Each of us has a bias toward a standard, whether we want to admit it or not. Is it the majority position? Our family tradition? Our church? The Bible or some other religious or philosophical standard?

All this may sound overly wordy and complicated, but until we figure out what we believe, why we believe it, and whether it can hold up to an opposing viewpoint, we can’t solve problems such as “Diary” effectively, either individually or as a community. We could just brush it aside, but that doesn’t solve the problem.

That’s why, even though this may be painful, “Diary” has been good for Sweet Home.

Those who see the book as unnecessarily dirty and a potential corrupting influence on young people have made their points clearly. But so have those who say the negative elements of the story are outweighed by its ability to engage young readers, many of whom have first-hand experience with many of the issues experienced by the young protagonist, and thus present “teachable moments” to discuss responsible responses to those problems.

And what about the notion that teachers are professionals and therefore should be trusted to make the right call on this and other educational issues? Is “Trust me, I’m a teacher” sufficient for us?

It’s pretty clear that the process used by the teachers to inform parents of the book’s contents and their intent to use it was inadequate because numerous parents have said they knew nothing about it until it was too late. Most we’ve heard from say they really had no idea about the book’s contents until others raised the alert.

The school district needs to take this seriously. The problem, of course, is there will never be a perfect solution to this problem, since harried parents aren’t always paying sufficient attention (we speak from experience) or they may not see the complete “package” of materials coming from school for them to sign.

How many of us, who are parents, have simply signed on the dotted line because that was all there was to look at or because we were in a big hurry?

Given the furor this issue has aroused, it would seem reasonable for the district to mandate that teachers have such permission slips vetted by the principal before they are sent home, to ensure that the activity in question is described in a non-biased and thorough manner so parents not already familiar with the situation, in this case, “Diary,” can be better informed.

In situations where the teacher or principal suspects parents might need to know that a book or activity may edge into controversial areas, it could be advisable to require a parent’s signature on every page of the hand-out, so the district knows the parent had a chance to see more than just a torn-off permission slip.

As we’ve said before regarding this issue, we are a society that includes individuals representing a broad range of backgrounds, views of morality and education. We also are a democratic community in the sense that the majority of voters elect the people who make the decisions, at least indirectly, that pertain to who educates our kids and how they do it.

That’s why we’re happy to see this issue go back to the School Board. They are our elected representatives. There are eight trustees on that board (one vacancy), elected directly by the people of this community to represent us.

We should remind ourselves that we’re fortunate to live in a democratic nation, where we all have a say (even if we don’t get our way) and we don’t have to worry about being jailed, or worse, if we speak or teach an opinion contrary to the party line. But let’s continue to make an effort to be gracious as this issue continues to be debated and, hopefully, settled for good, with positive results.

Finally, along the same lines, we’re convinced that the folks involved in this are decent people – on both sides. The teachers’ main agenda is not to subvert and corrupt our kids. They may have different values, sure, but what we really see here is people just trying to teach kids to love reading and literature, trying to teach kids to think critically.

The parents who oppose the use of “Diary” with their eighth-graders may disagree with the methods chosen by the teachers, but they don’t appear to us to be raving book burners. They’re looking out for their children and attempting to preserve and hand on their values in a society flooded with overtly crass content in all forms of media. Their primary goal is not to limit the academic freedom of any teachers.

The civility in the boardroom during this controversy has been reasonably high, particularly compared to other controversies we’ve covered, and those who have kept it clean deserve acknowledgment for going about it the right way.

Not so with the trash talk reportedly on Facebook, which needs to stop. There’s no redeeming value in name-calling, fallacies and ridicule, and general demeaning of self and others.

It’s difficult to be civil when one’s values, whether teacher or parent, are under attack.

We’re not convinced that “Diary” is good for eighth-graders, but we are convinced that civility is the way to proceed as that question gets another look.