By Kent Willis, Executive Director
The Albemarle County School Board is receiving nationwide ridicule for its decision to remove Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet from the required reading list for Henley Middle School sixth graders.
And deservedly so. This is censorship, pure and simple, and it is motivated by small-mindedness, political correctness, parental nervousness, and an unfounded fear of fiction that is often behind such decisions.
If you’re wondering what the fuss is all about, it’s Conan Doyle’s negative portrayal of Mormons in the first Sherlock Holmes’ novel, casting them as a cult of kidnappers and murderers. Conan Doyle paints neither a pretty nor accurate picture of the Mormon faith, and he does it in such a way as to be particularly offensive to modern sensibilities.
How then did A Study in Scarlet end up on the Henley School Reading list in the first place? I suspect it is because educators are always looking for literature that will both challenge young students and reveal to them the rewards of reading.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may not be Charles Dickens or Robert Louis Stevenson, but if his writing -- and his irrepressibly intriguing and quirky detective -- appeals to six graders and nurtures their interest in literature, then teachers are likely to use it.
On the other hand, shouldn’t educators avoid books containing blatant biases such as this?
They could. But if they did, the list of classic novels for young people would be significantly shortened. Oliver Twist would be out because of Fagin, the miserly Jew who organizes (and regularly cheats) a young ring of thieves. Robinson Crusoe’s Friday may be a noble savage portrayed in an unusually positive way for the early 18h century, but mostly he serves as justification for colonialism based on racial inferiority. Huckleberry Finn is an anti-slavery statement, but Mark Twain succumbs to every African-American racial stereotype when describing the runaway slave Jim. Even Treasure Island’s morally ambivalent Long John Silver is certain to offend many.
It is a slippery slope, indeed, when even well-intentioned education professionals start culling the classics to exclude those that contain offensive passages. We live in a far from perfect world now, but the sexism, racism, and religious biases found throughout classic literature is often more palpable, rawer and matter of fact than it is now.
By shielding students from these books, educators miss out on opportunities to engage in a dialogue about the historical period in which a book was written, the author’s individual viewpoints, and the use of literary devices, all of which may play a part in how a group or individual is depicted.
Surely, in the discussion of A Study of Scarlet teachers could point out that Conan Doyle had developed a bias against Mormons based on information he had gotten from sources now considered highly unreliable, and that at some point he may have issued a private apology to the Mormon church for the treatment they received in his book.
In this way, A Study in Scarlet becomes not just engaging reading, but also a study in stereotyping and learning.
Same for Oliver Twist, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn and a host of other classics that should be read and discussed in detail, not taken off reading lists.
Note: The Albemarle County School Board removed A Study in Scarlet from the required curriculum reading list, but not from the school library. Had it done the latter, the ACLU would be doing more than complaining; we would likely be threatening a lawsuit.
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