Education Reform

David Corn: The Inside Story of the Tennessee School Board that Banned MAUS

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David Corn, the D.C. Bureau Chief for Mother Jones, read the minutes of the McMinn County, Tennessee, school board that banned Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-Prize winning graphic novel, MAUS, and he found the comments even dumber than he expected. The school board members were worried that students in middle schools might hear words like “bitch” and “god damn,” they were upset by nude mice, and some had never read the book (maybe all).

Korn wrote:

One of my favorite books is Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Art Spiegelman’s brilliant 1986 graphic novel that recounts his parents’ harrowing experiences during the Holocaust when they were imprisoned in Auschwitz. In the book, Jews are depicted as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs. It is a richly and simply drawn blend of history, fiction, and memoir that captures the story of these survivors, their trauma, and the consequences for their son. The book is a complete artistic success, hailed widely as a masterpiece and awarded a Pulitzer, the first ever handed to a graphic novel. Not to overstate Maus’ significance, its publication legitimized this form of storytelling and marked a historic moment in American literature. In 1992, the Museum of Modern Art mounted an exhibition displaying Spiegelman’s original panels for the work. Two weeks ago, a Tennessee school board voted to ban the book.

The superintendent suggested that it would be possible to redact (delete) eight words and a picture of a woman that board members found objectionable. But that didn’t solve the board’ s revulsion for the book.

Educators defended the use of the book but it was hopeless.

Board member Tony Allman remarked, “We don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff. It shows people hanging. It shows them killing kids. Why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy.” Julie Goodin, an instructional supervisor who used to teach history, patiently explained to Allman that “there is nothing pretty about the Holocaust and for me this was a great way to depict a horrific time in history.” Allman wouldn’t relent: “I understand that on TV and maybe at home these kids hear worse, but we are talking things that if a student went down the hallway and said this, our disciplinary policy says they can be disciplined and rightfully so. And we are teaching this and going against policy.” Melasawn Knight, another instructional supervisor, took a stab at it: “People did hang from trees, people did commit suicide, and people were killed, over six million murdered… [Spiegelman] is trying to portray that the best he can with the language that he chooses that would relate to that time…Is the language objectionable? Sure. I think that is how he used that language….”

It’s easy to imagine the frustration of the educators up against this. Knight tried again to reason with the board, pointing out that the numerous books taught in the system contain “foul language,” including Bridge to Terabithia, The Whipping Boy, and To Kill a Mockingbird. That was a no-sale. Board member Mike Cochran piped up: “I went to school here thirteen years…I never had a book with a naked picture in it, never had one with foul language…So this idea that we have to have this kind of material in the class in order to teach history, I don’t buy it.” He groused that the book obliquely refers to Spiegelman’s father losing his virginity and explicitly depicts the suicide of Spiegelman’s mother. “A lot of the cussing had to do with the son cussing out the father,” he complained, “so I don’t really know how that teaches our kids any kind of ethical stuff…We don’t need this stuff to teach kids history… We don’t need all the nakedness and all the other stuff.”

A board member read out the lyrics of the song “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” and condemned it for its “sexuality.” He seemed to think that it was a poem, but it is a song.

Corn writes:

I don’t know if the educators present kept a straight face. Cochran was quoting not a poem but the lyrics of the song “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” which was written by Eubie Blake in 1921. Judy Garland had a hit with the tune in 1939. And in 1948, President Harry S. Truman adopted the number as his campaign theme song. Yet for Cochran this 100-year-old song was too racy for a middle schooler. It was obvious how he would be voting.

All 10 board members voted to ban MAUS.

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