Responding to bigoted but famous texts

0--banned_books1From time to time I see news items about attempts to remove a book from a school libraries and classrooms. The reasons are even appealing at times. One text is bigoted against African-Americans. Another against Asians. But more often the reasons are less appealing (at least to me): Harry Potter is attacked for teaching about witchcraft, The Golden Compass for being anti-religion, many books are attacked for profanity (including, ironically, Fahrenheit 451).

Yesterday, to my dismay, I learned of an attempt by a Mormon parent to get a book removed from a middle school class reading list because of its attitude towards Mormons. The book? A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle.

That the first Sherlock Holmes mystery is quite bigoted against Mormons and very misinformed about Mormon beliefs and practices is nothing new. Most laughably, the book is the source of the story that “kidnapped” girls taken to Utah by nefarious Mormon Elders escaped the Salt Lake Temple by jumping from its walls into the Great Salt Lake–a story that I’ve encountered, unattributed and reported today as fact, in Brazilian publications!

What is new (at least as far as I know) is the attempt to get the book removed from a reading list. My first reaction is one of embarrassment–that a Mormon thinks this is a good idea. [I should note that this might not be considered censorship–students can still get the book from the school and local libraries–its just not on the list of works recommended for the school year. However, the ALA’s definition of  “banned books” includes “an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others,” which clearly applies in this case. The definition allows parents to restrict their own children’s access, but not the access of others.]

Setting aside the implications that might be made from this proposal (that middle school children should not face the bigotry in well-known literary works, or that the best way to confront bigotry is to pretend it isn’t there) and the fact that several other works on the school’s list that could also be challenged for various reasons, I still find two significant problems in attempting to remove A Study in Scarlet from a reading list. First, try as I might, I can’t see how this move could possibly improve the understanding of children, Mormon or not, about Mormonism. And second, I suspect that the move will only come across as unnecessarily defensive or sensitive.

The only thing that removing a book from a reading list can possibly accomplish is to maintain ignorance. If you don’t read a book, you don’t know what it says (at least not without someone telling you). And if you don’t know what a book says, you can’t judge whether or not what it says is accurate or of value. Moreover, not reading A Study in Scarlet doesn’t remove its bias or the bias found in and transmitted by many other works (Zane Grey, anyone?). If the book is banned, no education happens, and we, Mormons aren’t any better off.

Then, when the news gets out that Mormons initiated banning the book, how will we appear? Its not like A Study in Scarlet is a new and controversial book. Likely tens of thousands read it each year, regardless of what this school system does. Isn’t the most likely reaction to Mormons banning the book one of incredulity? Its like banning Harry Potter because it talks of witchcraft–its had to see that any rational and intelligent person would take it as fact. Won’t banning this book make Mormons look reactionary? Like we can’t fight-off or explain inaccurate attacks from a nearly 125 year old book?

I do understand the desire to defend our religion and correct the misunderstandings (and outright falsehoods) in books, music, film, journalism, and even in blog posts. I also indulge in trying to explain the Mormon point of view and correct error. But I also recognize that if those errors were kept in the author’s brain and never written, neither the author nor his audience would have the corrections and viewpoints expressed to them. Their bigotry would never be confronted.

What is, I think, most productive to discuss in all this is what reactions should be made, and how should they be made. A Study in Scarlet has been in print since 1887. It remains popular, and I think it is unlikely that it will ever disappear. And there are, of course, other famous works that perpetuate misunderstandings of Mormonism. Jules Verne, Zane Grey and others have all included Mormonism in their works.

In other cases of bigotry, texts and other works that exploited the bigotry have largely fallen out of favor. Works like Little Black Sambo, Amos and Andy, Song of the South and others are read much less frequently than they once were. Is this what we should aim for? Of course the analogy with portrayals of those of African heritage doesn’t fit exactly, so perhaps not.

Instead should we aim for explaining the errors? Should we be working hard to help the broader culture come to the understanding that this is bigotry? Or should we take the kind of hands-off approach seen in the reaction to the recent Broadway musical The Book of Mormon? Should we let others discover the bigotry (as one non-Mormon did, comparing The Book of Mormon to Amos and Andy)?

I’m not sure what the approach should be. I look forward to your comments. But, I am certain that the best path doesn’t lie in limiting access to works because of their portrayal of Mormonism.

23 thoughts on “Responding to bigoted but famous texts”

  1. I would suggest to supplement this with the news article, because this blog response sounds like lone Mormons angry at the inclusion. The truth is that keeping it off the list has a lot of support with, “Several Albemarle County School parents, along with members of the Mormon community . . .” seeking the removal. Not only that, but a committee that that was set up to review the opposition recommended not to have it included on the reading list. The report notes, “superintendent of Albemarle County Schools, Pam Moran, agrees with the parents’ objection and the committee’s recommendation.” How will it appear to outsiders that a Mormon wants it banned from the reading list, ignoring that its not just one person? Apparently in the immediate community it appears the Mormon made a reasonable request.

  2. I read A Study in Scarlet in a Sherlock Holmes collection checked out from my school library back in sixth grade, so 1978 in Las Vegas and a volume that wasn’t new at the time. The publisher included a note that the story had been editted to omit prejudiced Mormon stereotypes found in the original.

  3. I can’t help but think a more effective response would be to read the book and talk about its misconceptions. However, the fact that it appears on a reading list suggests that the reading may not be taking place in a way that would allow that kind of exploration.

    So here’s a question: Is the motivating desire in getting this book removed (a) to avoid exposing Mormon children to a hostile prejudicial text, or (b) to avoid exposing non-Mormon children who wouldn’t know better to a text that’s inaccurate? If it’s the former, I’m not impressed.

    I have to wonder: If you remove the prejudiced Mormon stereotypes, what do you have left? Frankly, I’d be better pleased with a text that left in the stereotypes but included an introduction and/or footnotes talking about the issue.

    (Which reminds me of the edition of Dracula I remember hearing about where a footnote informed readers about the way that the author got the blood transfusion wrong, saying something like, “If the loss of blood doesn’t kill her, the transfusion surely will.”)

  4. I read it when I was a kid, probably just before high school, and my reaction was “ooh we’re the villains…cool!”

  5. The real problem with a study in scarlet is that its just not that good. Not even Doyle’s best, and Doyle doesn’t really belong in the curriculum. At least not as required reading. But, sure, it belongs in the school library, or on a long list of books that kids are supposed to select from.

    If Mormons were still getting raped and burned out I might feel differently.

  6. I spoke in a “Pioneer Day” sacrament meeting in our stake several years ago in which I read a paragraph from A Study In Scarlet about a most desolate and dreary place that lies in the Western section of the United States. “We have a name for this most dreadful area,” I said, “we call it ‘home’.”

  7. Jonathan (5), I like your suggestion for editions that approach the bigotry in the edition.

    The biggest problem with this approach is simply that, since the original is in the public domain, it will be very difficult to get most editions to include explanations of the anti-Mormon bigotry.

  8. My seventh grader chose the book off the list to read for 7th grade English. Without me knowing, she informed the teacher that the story was offensive so she was skipping the rest of that short story and she read the rest of the stories. I only heard about it a couple of months later.
    It seemed like my daughter and the teacher managed to deal with the problem just fine, so no problem.
    If the teacher was requiring the entire class to read the book I might have had a talk with her and made sure she was including information about the poor research.
    Makes you realize that all sorts of TV shows and books are very inaccurate.

  9. A Study in Scarlet is quite possibly the poorest of all the Sherlock Holmes stories (showing in part that Doyle did, in fact, get better as he went along).

    As I recall, he wound up with a reprise of the basic idea in The Valley of Fear, except this time with Masons rather than Mormons. Apparently he’d learned by then, and had his character clarify that this was Masonry gone drastically wrong. (I remember reading that in later years Doyle visited Utah and recognized that his earlier impressions had been mistaken. Hope it’s true.)

  10. The quality of the story is quite irrelevant, I think. The question is really what can be done to clear up the misconceptions and avoid perpetuating them.

  11. My name is Jim Stern and I was one of the Albemarle County residents asked to sit on the review committee and to make a recommendation to the School Board.

    I may not get back to check this blog soon but you can find me easily and I welcome anyone who wants to ask questions and will answer tot he best of my ability to dispell the wide range of posts I am seeing across the web.

    First, we recommended NOT to ban the book. We felt it should not be on THE SIXTH GRADE reading list, unless context and guidance were developed for teachers. We felt it was more appropriate for high school than 6th graders, but NEVER considered a total ban. In fact, the complainant (singular) did not even seek a complete ban. She was articulate and reasonable throughout.

    The teacher involved clearly loved the book and made a dozen arguements for keeping the text that were equally articulate and very thoughful. A sample…

    -It was Doyle’s first book, you can’t learn how he grew without comparison.
    -It introduces Holmes deductive methodology. The writing at eyelevel relation to height struck every student and turned on a bulb.
    -It uses the reverse flip literary technique, common now, radical then.
    -It introduces Dr Watson
    and many more.

    It is my hope that the School Board does not ban the book but rather address the curiculum short falls. Not a single 6th grader even noticed the Mormon references, let alone took them as a slur against the faith. This includes my own 6th grade son. He was focused on mystery and deductive reasoning and did not even remember who the antagonists were by religion or a “Mormon” tag, just by deeds and names.

    However, to have 6th graders or any student in our public school system to read this book without including guidance to teachers and thereby students as to the context in which the novel should be read.

    We would not hand our students To Kill a Mockingbird, The Jungle or The Diary of Anne Frank without context. Although A Study in Scarlet is not of the literary significance of the other examples, it should no more be a candidate for banning than the others.

    The lazy answer is to ban the book. The correct answer is to develop curiculum and guidance for teachers and students who wish to explore this work. It would be appropriate for my son, just as his reading this year of To Kill a Mockingbird, The Jungle and Diary of Anne Frank all are apropriate for him. But without an exceptional teacher this book cannot be put in context properly for most 6th graders. Yet, any teacher should be able to use this in high school and with a proper lesson plan get almost any stuident to learn from the text.

    Doyle said later it was his first book and written for a tabloid audience who believed the stereotypes of the day. He had never been out of the country and believed what he heard out of ignorance. Later he was in fact, asked to speak at the Tabernacle, asked for and was given forgiveness after explaining how ignorance can cause pain and that as an older and wiser man he saw the harm he had helped to flame.

    So do we want our children to learn that lesson, or hide it from their eyes?

  12. Thanks, Jim. I agree wholeheartedly with this: “The correct answer is to develop curiculum and guidance for teachers and students who wish to explore this work.”

  13. Jim,

    Very much appreciate you stopping by here and sharing the thinking of the group.

    Like William, I agree that a contextualized discussion is perhaps the best way to address this book. Given practical considerations of limited classroom time, however, that may be unlikely to happen.

    A question: What is the significance of the sixth grade reading list? Is it a list of recommended books for sixth graders to read? A list from which teachers are allowed to select books to teach in their classes? Is it designed to help guide student selection, or teacher classroom planning? There are a lot of things I’d be uncomfortable listing for students to check out on their own, that could be handled quite appropriately in a classroom setting.

  14. Jonathan,
    Yes, given the practical considerations most teachers will shy away from the effort required to write an apropriate lesson plan for this book, but we did not want to take away the ability if a teacher chose to do so.

    The sixth grade reading list is a list of reviewed and approved books teachers can select from for use in their classroom. It does not guide or influence inany way student book selection.

    One of the ironies is that whether the book is ‘banned’ for 6th graders, or even if ‘banned’ for ALL students, A Study in Scarlet will remain available for any Middle or High School student to check out of the library and read on their own.

    So prohibit the reading of a book with guidance because of the effort required to develop criteria for the classroom while allowing unfettered access to he ‘controversial’ material with no guidance or even opportunity for discussion.

    The access without guidance does not bother me, no child will read this book and hate Mormons, it’s not how they think. But a precious opportunity is lost.

    The epiphany is a wonderful thing to teach about. A sudden insight into reality or the realization you had held a completely false world view and have had to accept you were wrong, like Conan Doyle’s experience, is a huge part of a good life.

    We all have learned falsehoods from others and especially if they are from those we respectr or revere, like parents, we can accept those falsehoods as fact if we do not know how to investigate question and learn.

    Nothing is more valuable than giving a child the ability to judge for themselves the truth and falsities in the world around us.

  15. I also thank Jim for stopping by and giving such a thoughtful comment. Wm is right, and I too agree wholeheartedly that “The correct answer is to develop curiculum and guidance for teachers and students who wish to explore this work.”

    Jonathan (19) raises a great and important point. Given the number of titles on the reading list, I assumed that the list was for independent reading, rather than for classroom study (although I realize that my assumption could well be wrong).

    I think there has perhaps been some confusion over the word “ban.” As I indicated in the post, I have wondered about whether this might be seen as a ban because of the ALA definition, which talks about whether or not the book has been removed from the curriculum or access to the book has been restricted. Without knowing the details that Jonathan refers to, its hard to know whether or not this action might meet the definition or not.

    In the end, this post is not as much about whether or not a book has been banned, but about how Mormons can and should react to those texts that contain bigoted information about Mormonism.

    I think Jim and I agree that we do need “to develop curriculum and guidance for teachers and students” on this book and on other works. While that may not be sufficient, it could help immeasurably in situations like this one. I assume that if such curriculum and guidance already existed, it would be much easier for the review committee to simply suggest that the guidance or curriculum be used in conjunction with the book.

  16. TO ALL – URGENT
    This is Jim. The School Board votes on Thursday. If I can get the advice I need as soon as possible and absolute worst case by Wednesday I can make a positive difference in the lives of so many.

    Our (the committee) recommendation to the Board in a nutshell, keep the book in the library for any student to check out. Take it out of the classroom until proper lesson plans and guidance can be created.

    This means a child can read A Study In Scarlet with no guidance in the library but cannot read it with guidance and interaction in the class.

    Our King Solomon approach is acceptable at the most minimal level. Better would be to find or create the lesson plan.

    Option 1. Find an existing plan that is sensitive to all. On the web I find things for many other books, but nothing for this work I can use. It may only turn out to be a starting point but it would make my quest easier.

    Option 2. If nothing can be found then I feel we have a duty to create it. I must assume that Jews and educators collaborated on many lesson plans for Diary of Anne Frank. So I will try to gather the team to accomplish this.

    The parent was passionate but reasonable. To leave the book without guidance would hurt her.

    The teacher was passionate and reasonable. BUT I realized tonight for 22 years she has looked forward to bringing the first Holmes appearance to advanced sixth grade students who have come to her years later and remembered that book from their year with her. If we force the book into the library we injure her. Her love for the book was as real as the complainants love of her faith.

    And to not produce this lesson plan for our schools dishonors all. We cannot shy away from what is required. But I need help.

    Does anyone have the wherewithall to find lesson plans on this book. If not, who amongst the Mormon hierarchy or educational scholars could I reach out to for assistance.

    You can find my email on w w w dot crossroadsinn dot com.

    Sincerely Jim

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