Of Milton, Genesis, and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

For five years, I’ve been attending meetings of my public school district’s curriculum council. Five years of reviewing testing data, kindergarten schedules, and proposed changes in nutrition guidelines–all sorts of drudgery.  Nothing terribly interesting ever happened.

Well, I missed last month’s meeting, and that’s when it all went down. The council decided to recommend that the school board remove Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian from the high school curriculum.

(Note: time for a major mea culpa. I could have voted on the issue over e-mail but I forgot to do so. I realize that was a pretty sucky thing to have forgotten.)

We had discussed other books in other years—Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, most notably—but the most draconian the council had ever gotten was to approve a text with restrictions, which I could live with.  But this time, they voted to remove the text from the curriculum altogether (and yes, I’m still kicking myself for missing the blasted vote).

I greatly respect the other parents on the curriculum council. I truly believe that, to a person, they are doing what they think is right for their children and for our district.  However, I couldn’t disagree more with the decision that was reached.

According to notes from the meeting and an article in the newspaper, reasons given for the removal of Alexie’s book included violence, profanity, and sexual content. Objections were also made to the alcohol consumption in the book.

But the thing is, violence, profanity, and sexual content are laced throughout the entire literary corpus. Indeed, based on those objections, I don’t see how the district can justify the inclusion of the Bible (which is used in a bible-as-literature class) or any of Shakespeare’s tragedies in the curriculum. Consider:

  • Objections to discussion of masturbation in Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian:

How is the story of Judah’s son Onan in the first book of the Bible that different? Judeo-Christian exegesis often considered this story to be an injunction against masturbation and any “spilling of seed” whatsoever (from whence we get the word “onanism”).

“Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.  And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him” (Gen. 38:8-11)

  • Objections to violence:

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Lady Macbeth urges her husband to murder Duncan using the language of infanticide.

I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.


Is that better than the description of a school fight?

  • Objections to the consumption of alcohol

Consider Gen. 9: 20-23, in which Noah becomes so drunk that he passes out naked.

“And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.” (Gen. 9: 20-23)

  • Objections to sexual and violent content:

Consider Hamlet’s decision to wait until his uncle Claudius is no longer at prayer to kill him because if he waits until his uncle is drunk or has just had sex with Hamlet’s mother, Claudius will go straight to hell:

“and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes.” (Act 3, Scene 3, 88-95)

But, of course, I would never argue that Hamlet, Macbeth, or the Bible should be banned. Nor should The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian. These are all works that engage the mind and the conscience, asking us to grapple with preconceived ideas and imagine new possibilities.

In his pamphlet Aeropagitica, John Milton argued against pre-publication censorship of writing.  For Milton, a mind that has read widely and had unfettered access to all manner of thought is a mind that is trained to discern true things:

“Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter? Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing.”

Our students should have the freedom to read an discuss difficult ideas in the safety of a classroom with the support of a well-trained teacher.

Or, as Milton put it, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”


Update: 9/22/14

The matter was put before the members of the Grants Pass School Board, who requested that the issue be tabled for one month so they could read the book. At the next meeting, they voted to approved Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. 

You guys, I am so proud of my school board for insisting they be given a chance to read the book before taking action, and I’m absolutely thrilled that they voted to keep it.

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