The Sarah Palins Will Keep Coming: On the Banning of Certain Classic Literature in Alaska

Alaska, already markedly lacking in being acknowledged (so much so that people still seem to think that Texas is the largest state) despite its storied history of having among the highest suicide rates in the U.S. and being sold for the price of a song (7.2 million dollars) by the Russians in 1912, has managed to re-register on people’s radar after a recent and rather 1950s-inspired school board decision. Specifically the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District. With a population of under 10,000 in the “city” of Palmer in which the school district operates, one couldn’t be too surprised that there was little opposition to the decision to remove from the teaching curriculum the following classics in American literature: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (too insinuatingly lewd), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (rape and incest, but also too black), Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (violence), Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (“anti-white messaging” a.k.a. too black) and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (violence).

Citing particular grievance with The Great Gatsby for its so-called sexual overtones (a little adultery plotline never hurt anyone), vice president and member of the school board Jim Hart was the one to comment that it shouldn’t be the responsibility of the teachers to have to confront and/or “explain” these “difficult” subject matters with children, who might somehow be psychologically damaged by the content of these novels.

Last time one checked, however, this is precisely what one signs on for when they become an educator. It’s right there in the job title: educat(e). Don’t mitigate. Or mind-numb. But what’s to be expected of a town where picturesqueness (complete with holding the annual Alaska State Fair) is valued over free-thinking and intellectualism? While Hart emphasized that “ban” was too strong a word for making a few tweaks to the curriculum and that the books would still be available in the library if students wanted to read them on their own time (as if), the discouragement of exploring these time-honored narratives is telling of the type of “products” Alaska is comfortable turning out. That is to say, another round of Sarah Palins (incidentally, Palin did a scholastic stint in the offending Palmer, attending Matanuska-Susitna College for a time). Content to rest on the “laurels” of conservatism and “Christian values.” 

When Palin took the office of governor in Alaska in 2006, it was, ironically, a goal of hers to focus on education (which would be unfortunate considering this is a woman who advocates for the teaching of creationism alongside the “theory” of evolution). Taking into account the state she grew up in, it’s no wonder Palin turned out to be such a bastion of daft, non-critical thinking–perhaps most famously summed up by her announcing as a means to assert her background in foreign policy, “You can actually see Russia, from land, here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.” This would famously spur Tina Fey to parody her on Saturday Night Live by shouting, “I can see Russia from my house!” Similarly, a non sequitur line of “reasoning” from Hart regarding his ardency for the books’ removal manifested in: “If I were to read these in a corporate environment, in an office environment, I would be dragged into [human resources].” That’s neither here nor there, but then, from the perspective of mainland Americans, neither is Alaska.

With the Mat-Su Borough School District overwhelmingly voting 5-2 on removing the aforementioned literature from the list of acceptable content on which to build a high school curriculum, it feels more than likely that Alaskans will stick to their own state, their own kind (except for Palin, who has branched out to Los Angeles so as to appear on The Masked Singer, where she commented after her unveiling, “The bear is part of my nickname growing up… And they’re in Alaska, you know. There’s a bear in our front yard, so Bear was easy.” Oh how familiar this shtick is). For “thinking” outside of it might just end up hurting too much–which is why one wonders why The Orange One doesn’t just transfer the White House right over there so he can watch soothing imagery of offshore drilling without worrying about anyone commenting on his inability to form coherent sentences.

Unfortunately, the Mat-Su Borough School Board decision does not feel like it will be an isolated or “antiquated” incident in U.S. states with a more notoriously conservative approach to politics, inextricably linked to education. Because, no matter what the epoch, there is always room for some Fahrenheit 451-inspired censorship (of course, soon no one will know that reference). At the same time, it’s almost encouraging that education boards still have faith that any of these students are actually reading the books assigned, and that, therefore, books still have power.

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