Classroom Censorship in Mat-Su Alaska School District Latest In Long Line

The Matanuska-Susitna School Board (Mat-Su) pulled five classics of American literature from high school English classrooms in a sweeping 5-2 vote. Pulled from curriculum are Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. All were pulled due to their depiction of sexual situations, with Angelou’s title also being noted as “anti-white.”

In addition, the Mat-Su Board also pulled The New York Times’s The Learning Network.

All of the titles pulled from classrooms are part of English electives and while not all are required reading, some of them are. Questions have swirled about whether these books would also  be removed from school libraries, but the Board does not have the power to remove materials from school media centers (BP 6163.1).

The Mat-Su School Board determines the course of study for the high schools within the district, with superintendents of each school responsible for ensuring the instruction is unified. Instructional materials are periodically evaluated, and this year’s evaluation included upper-level English electives. English I and English II courses in the district have a prescribed reading list, while elective courses do not. By removing these titles from curriculum — be they required reading or supplementary — the board moves closer toward determining a reading list for these upper level, elective classes.

The Mat-Su school board consists of seven elected members, along with one student representative. The board, which voted to remove the books in a 5-2 voting, was split by gender — the five votes to remove materials were white male members, while the two who voted against the material removal were white women.

This is not the first time male members of the board have honed in on sexual depictions in course materials.

Board member Ryan Ponder is supported by the Alaska Republican Party, along with board member Jim Taylor and Jim Hart. All three were up for election this past November, winning seats on the board. The Alaska Family Council (AFC), a Christian, pro-family organization “dedicated to protecting strengthening the family” endorsed all three candidates, who in a survey for the Council indicated they would lead through the values set forth which include:

  • Communicating Truth
  • Influencing Public Policy
  • Promoting Active Citizenship
  • Equipping Grassroots Leaders
  • Strengthening Church Involvement

In the AFC survey prior to their election, all three indicated they’d require parental permission before sex education classes, forcing parents to opt-in to the instruction. They also agreed to focusing sex education on “sexual risk avoidance,” which teaches the benefits of refraining from non-marital sex.

The Mat-Su school board policies in relation to sexual education explicitly state that any instruction shall be within the ethical and moral confines of marriage.

Ryan Ponder fixated on previous classroom literature studies, according to Board news reports in relation to a newly-hired Wasilla High School principal in June 2019. He argued against instating the principal — a power the Board does not retain — and raised the issue that the principal had been part of the foundation of No More Mat-Su, an organization working to end domestic and sexual violence.

Board member Jim Taylor (endorsed by the AFC), in discussing  why the books needed to  be removed, said  that depictions of rape and sexual assault were serious problems, “especially in our teenage world.” He noted that he’d prefer the books simply removed, while fellow board member Jim Hart (also AFC endorsed) — who hadn’t read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings — said that reading aloud the passage he did skim depicted molestation so graphic “If I were to read this in a professional environment at my office, I would be dragged to the equal opportunity office.”

The Board recommended a course of study for upper level elective English classes in their meeting to pull those five titles. It comes as zero surprise the suggested curriculum is extremely white (and contains errors — Brandt’s book is titled Between the Commas, not Between The Comas).

Board documents include the texts and rationale for their inclusion or lack of inclusion from curriculum. Many of the challenges focus on sexual situations outside of marriage. Twelfth Night, which the Board recommends for inclusion, includes many notes about Viola, rationalizing her “cross-dressing” not in terms of discussing gender or identity but instead, a historically sound depiction of women being seen as lesser men during Shakespeare’s time.

Though no censorship organization is behind the materials removal, it is common for groups like that to develop coordinated efforts to pull books from classrooms. Florida Citizens Alliance is well-known for doing this in Florida.

What makes this particular case disturbing is how clearly political it is, with support from conservative organizations to remove any materials might depict the realities of life outside of the cis, white, patriarchal, heteronormative ideal — one which is far from realistic for today’s world. Girls under the age of 19 are four times more likely to be victims of sexual assault or rape than the rest of the population, while 82% of all sexual assault and rape victims under the age of 18 are female.

By removing books like these from the classroom and focusing on the belief that the only sexual educations and discussions permissible in school curriculums are those within martial confines, white men like those on this board further endanger the lives of every young person under their guidance.