Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Brave New World in Seattle

For the last few weeks, Seattle has been debating Aldous Huxley's novel BRAVE NEW WORLD. The book was assigned in a high school English class, and a Native American student and her mother objected strongly to its "racist" depiction of Native Americans, including over 30 references to "savage natives" on reservations as being dirty and decrepit, living apart from the modern world of Huxley's future. The book was -- depending on whom you listen to -- either banned or "suspended" from the curriculum. The suspension is allegedly until teachers can be taught to "present the material sensitively."

Apart from the slur on teachers' ability to already deal with their own curriculum, this issue is more complicated than it looks at first. I am categorically against any form of censorship of adult reading material. But kids present a different situation. I think we can all agree that, for instance, nobody wants TROPIC OF CANCER in the third-grade library. So the question becomes: Where does the line exist between children who should be protected against things they are not yet mature enough to handle, and teenagers who are presumably able to discuss literature that presents disturbing views of the future?

For those of you who haven't read BRAVE NEW WORLD (and I don't know why that would be), it's worth pointing out that the novel regards protagonist John, raised on the "savage" reservation, as the moral center of the novel, and the future "civilized" world -- with its deliberately created genetic slaves, orgies, and easy drugs -- as undesirable. In the same way, the slave Jim is the moral center of HUCKLEBERRY FINN, another novel often challenged for its racism. These books actually condemn the mores of "normal" society and so are genuinely subversive -- a point which any good teacher would make in class.

I think high school students can handle this distinction, and the book. It should not be banned, suspended, nor hidden away in the interests of students or parents who wish to read only what is comfortable. LITTLE WOMEN and ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, in their own way, fine books -- but they're hardly the whole of literature. Or of education.

5 comments:

Sean Craven said...

I'm not sure if I've been reading this book wrong my whole life. I probably first read this in the second grade, and I've always interpreted the folks on the reservation not as Native Americans, but as the remnants of a less-hedonic/possibly-Christian society. Is the Native American interpretation the standard one?

(Self-education can be a pain.)

I re-read this just a couple of years ago, and was surprised at how feasible and prescient the whole thing was. I didn't buy the generosity with which the lower classes were treated, but this is a good book, and it still has some teeth in its bite.

A.R.Yngve said...

Hey, if you want to purge racism from the "classics" of literature, try banning THE LORD OF THE RINGS -- and then watch every young Tolkien fan (of every ethnic variety, including Native American) cry foul. [SARCASM]

But seriously...

As for Native Americans, white Americans have done much more to diminish (and indeed exterminate) Native Americans than Aldous Huxley's work ever did, so the "banning"/"suspension" of BRAVE NEW WORLD doesn't amount to much more than a distraction.

TheOFloinn said...

One aspect of the dissolution of the Modern Ages is the triumph of form over matter (which together make substance). We can see this in the confusion between "holding elections" and having a democracy; or in the recent "marriage" of an Australian man to his pet Labrador retriever. Thus, in this case, the use of particular words or forms - "reservation", "dirty savages", etc. - concern us more than the actual substance of the matter.

It is likely that an extremely scurrilous novel could depict some select group unfavorably yet fly under the radar because the form (words) used to express it did not press any buttons.

Like Sean, I don't recollect that "reservation" meant "American Indian" any more than the reservations in Heinlein's version: Beyond This Horizon or in my own little satire "Grave Reservations." Why would they suppose Huxley would be writing about anything American, anyhow? It's set in London fer cryin out loud.

EFKelley said...

Forget Brave New World, where's all the protesting about the Gallic Wars? I mean, we pay LOTS of attention to Native Americans, African Americans, and other horribly horribly oppressed minorities, but there's not one word about the poor Gauls! Look what happened to those poor people. They became French!

I can't think of a more horrifying fate, and yet Caesar is still hailed as 'the greatest military mind of his time'. When are we going to stop paying attention to the most recent atrocities and start making reparations for the oldest, deepest wounds?

patrick said...

I teach this book to 10th graders at my high school. Of all the books I've taught over the years, BRAVE NEW WORLD is the one that's been challenged the most by parents, for some of the reasons you discussed. (However, a challenge hasn't happened for a number of years now)