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The New Controversy: Teaching Controversy

Eden Andrews


Photo via Library Journal.

Rosa Parks is a championed civil rights veteran. By dangerously sitting in the “whites only” part of a Montgomery bus, she helped expose the depravity of segregation and the necessity of racial equality. However, this is not the history lesson children were exposed to in their latest Florida textbooks. The internet was outraged to learn that race was completely taken out of Parks’ story in the students’ school material, which now reads, “Rosa Parks showed courage. One day, she rode the bus. She was told to move to a different seat. She did not. She did what she believed was right.” The elimination of race from the story comes thanks to Florida’s new controversial legislation which heavily restricts discussions of “divisive” subjects in schools.

Though the textbook was recalled amid backlash, the entire event demonstrates how the U.S. is setting new precedents for educational censorship. Discussions about what should and shouldn’t be exposed to students in the classroom have never been more heated and are even beginning to travel up north into the Canadian consciousness.

In an interview with CBC, drag queen Barbada De Barbades notes “We’re not immune to all that negativity and hate.” Her comment came as her drag story hour activity with Saint-Laurent libraries was finally reinstated, being previously pulled by the Saint-Laurent council due to a high number of complaints.

This aversion to “divisive” subject matter is not especially new to Canada. In 2009, a parent complained against Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale being taught in his seventeen-year-old’s Toronto school on account of the novel’s anti-christian values and exploration of sexual exploitation.

At the other end of the political spectrum, the Ontario Peel District School Board sent a memo in 2018 strongly suggesting teachers not expose students to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird because of its harmful racist undertones. Though the school board clarified that the book is not banned, their opinion on book banning is clear through an excerpt of the memo that reads, “[t]he idea that banning books is about censorship and that censorship limits free speech is often decried as a poor reason to keep the novel on schools’ reading lists as its racist themes make it violent and oppressive for black students.” When asked about the memo they received, one teacher expressed concern, telling the National Post, “mentioning the history of racism, to me, isn’t racism itself. We’re not promoting racism, we’re referring to the reality of it.”

When I asked Dawson English teacher Chad Lowe about teaching controversial books, he explained his reasoning: “I believe that one of the main points of reading literature in the first place is to access the mindsets, beliefs, biases and (sometimes) blind spots of those who lived in specific times and places, including in the past.” Lowe teaches the graphic novel Maus in his 102 English class. The 1992 Pulitzer Prize winning story, recounting Vladek Spiegelman’s experience as a Jewish prisoner during the Holocaust, made headlines recently for having been banned by the McMinn County Tennessee school board. The school board stated that the novel’s vulgar language and nudity were not appropriate for its eighth-grade students. During the meeting, a member of the board further explained the ban, noting that the book “shows people hanging; it shows them killing kids; why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy.”

At the mention of these bans, Lowe responded by saying, “I have never been more proud to be teaching Art Spiegelman's graphic novel Maus than in the semester when it was essentially removed from the reading lists in certain school districts in the US. The vast majority of students I have had in Quebec understand how important it is to sensitively discuss controversy or upsetting things in the classroom and they do an amazing job handling it.”

Cases like the Rosa Parks textbook and Maus’ ban illustrate the tremendous power, not only of art and history but also of teaching. Our understanding of that power means that these cases willcertainly not be the last of their kind. For Lowe, learning to wield that power is the goal ofteaching: “In a free democratic society, there is no place for making information unavailable.Sometimes information is controversial, sometimes it is upsetting; sometimes it's outright wrongor offensive or even stupid. But the goal is to have a society of individuals that is capable ofsifting through that information, some of which is just noise, and figuring these things out forthemselves.”


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