Of Mice and Members of a Tennesee School Board

When I first spotted the headline “Book about Holocaust banned in Tennessee School District” today, I began reading the article wondering if Maus had at least in part been banned because of its deliberately insulting depiction of Poles as pigs. Of course, that wasn’t the reason at all.

Why was Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus judged unfit for the eighth-grade language arts curriculum by the McMinn County, Tennessee, board of education on January 10? Well, it seems the board did not like eight curse words and the image of a naked anthropomorphized mouse. The board did look into redacting what they consider instances of objectionable and age-inappropriate material, but ultimately they decided to find an alternative book to teach about the Holocaust at that grade level. Note that they have no obvious issue with middle school students learning about the Holocaust.

As a fairly liberal and progressive citizen, my knee jerked when I first heard of the board’s decision. Here we go again–another culture wars skirmish, I thought. However, after my knee stopped twitching, I began to see their point.

I’ve read both volumes of Maus, and I’m not sure that Spiegelman’s graphic memoirs present the Holocaust in a way by which I’d want my middle-school grandson to learn the history of the Nazi’s brutal persecution of Jews, Slavs (Russians, Slovenes, Ukrainians, Poles, and others), Romani, Communists, political prisoners, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholics, their own disabled countrymen, and so forth.

The Holocaust is a complex historical reality and an important topic for study. Here’s a thought for the Tennessee district’s teachers and its BOE. Why not come up with an interdisciplinary Holocaust research project involving the social studies and language arts departments? Why not explore the historical context of the Holocaust with factual and objective materials that are developmentally appropriate for twelve and thirteen year olds? Why not treat memoirs and fiction as supplementary materials in such a unit?

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