Literature in Classrooms: NYU Professor Banned from Teaching, Junot Díaz Short Story Controversy

An NYU professor has been banned from teaching at the Sarasota County school district in Florida, demonstrating that the era of book banning and censored classrooms is still alive and well in American secondary schools today. This permission slip mentality regarding literature presents a great disservice to students, many of whom find themselves starting out their adult life in a world filled with anger and discontent.
This is not a health class. Sheltering parents should not be able to subject their child to ridicule from peers for being shooed out of the room as though it were birth control day and they failed to produce the necessary parental permissions. This is literature. This is a part of our education system that teaches some of the most important lessons: different viewpoints, different cultures, and the questions surrounding humanity in general. These stories provoke thought. Provoke discussions among the youth of America, a segment of our society on the cusp of their educational awakening.
Authors of literature, truly good literature (the kind worthy of receiving the Pulitzer Prize, for example), artfully convey characters that are real. In doing so, they show all sides of the character: the good, the bad and the ugly. Especially the ugly. Because humans are fucked up.
Some are just better at hiding it than others.
Alma by Junot Díaz, an awarded and highly recognized figure in the literary community, is the controversial story in question. The 4-page story depicts a sexist Dominican male’s crude thoughts toward his girlfriend, Alma, leading up to the act of infidelity that ultimately ends their relationship. From a writer’s perspective, it presents an artful mastery of character development in such a short amount of space; a true testament to Díaz’s abilities as a writer. From a human standpoint, it is a story played out in real life thousands of times over. It is messy and honest, and everything that literature should be. And yet, the story sparked outrage among parents and school officials at Venice High. And cost a teacher her job.
Lisa del Rosso assigned this story to a group of 12th grade Advanced English students at Venice High, most of which were only months away from the age of the freshman college students at NYU assigned the same story as part of del Rosso’s regular curriculum. Exposure to curriculum from a prestigious institution of higher education such as NYU might arguably be considered an educational opportunity of a lifetime. Not so for many parents of students attending Venice High. It took a mere few hours for the school to request the banning of del Rosso from teaching.
The controversy sparks a discussion, as most controversies tend to do. Literature in schools. What is considered appropriate? History shows us that controversial stories offer educational merit, as demonstrated by many titles that currently are included in English secondary school curriculum across the country: The Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby. To name a few.  These titles have been banned, argued over and embraced for their insightful portrayal of often difficult and uncomfortable topics. Topics that many parents might want to avoid discussing with their child at the dinner table. Or at all.
Allowing such factors to influence the literature assigned in our classrooms is a grave misstep. Our educators should not be impeded in providing a quality education to our youth due to pressures of the school administration or the public. Discomfort breeds discussion. Discussion facilitates thought and understanding. Sheltering young adults (many graduating seniors in high school have already reached the age of 18 and are considered legal adults in the United States) will only result in the continued ignorance that perpetrates our society with disturbing regularity. As demonstrated on the news as of late, America has not progressed as much as it would like to claim. Studying literature, truly good literature, requires the simultaneous study of the human condition. It sheds light on the lives and minds of others, and consequently lessens the gap between people of different backgrounds and beliefs. It encourages thinking differently, something our nation desperately needs right now.
The news coming out of Sarasota County school district, while disheartening, also calls attention to the fact that there are still educators out there like Lisa del Rosso. Unafraid of providing challenging and thought provoking material to an audience that is given very little credit when it comes to their ability to process the information with maturity and clarity. Unfortunately, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed educators looking to make a difference in the world, armed with unique lesson plans filled with passion and heart, are often stifled, encouraged instead to follow the traditional path. To not make waves. Hopefully, incidences such as these do not deter teachers from introducing new and relevant literary works into their curriculum. In doing so, they continue to incite discussions and open young minds to new ideas, one story at a time.

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