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'Bluest Eye' Becomes Common-Core Flash Point

Morrison_Blog.jpgAn Alabama state senator is making headlines for calling on educators in his state to effectively ban Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye, even though—or perhaps because—the book is on the list of "text exemplars" for 11th graders in the Common Core State Standards in English/Language Arts.

"The book is just completely objectionable from [the] language to the content," Republican Sen. Bill Holtzclaw told a state media group last week. He added, according to AL.com, that lawmakers should not dictate curriculum materials to schools.

Morrison's oft-taught novel, about a young black girl's struggles with self-worth and identify in 1940s Ohio, has become a flash point for opponents of the common standards because of its occasionally graphic content, including a highly detailed incestuous rape scene. Though the standards' exemplar texts are meant to serve as "guideposts" rather than requirements, some detractors see the book as emblematic of the new instructional framework's purported threat to local control and parental oversight of what's taught in schools. A much-linked-to post by a conservative blogger, for example, refers to The Bluest Eye as "common-core approved child pornography."

Holtzclaw himself has supported the common standards against repeal attempts in Alabama, a position for which he has come under fire from conservative groups. Even so, perhaps in a gesture to appease those critics, he said he sees no educational value in requiring students to read texts that contain sexually explicit material.

Some observers, however, have characterized the harsh criticism of the book as indiscriminate and ill-advised. Writing on the ThinkProgress blog, Alyssa Rosenberg argued that the charges of pornography "make for an ugly, but effective way, to suggest that a work of art that's forcing a confrontation with the reality of rape is actually meant to titillate." Such charges could prevent students from "engaging with work that could expand their thinking and their empathy."

Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that, in depicting the vulnerability and harsh experiences of an African-American girl, The Bluest Eye can help students "internalize a point of view they might not often encounter." It could also give voice to students who feel a connection with the main character. Like other great works of literature, Costello said, the novel provides a "window into the lives of others."

She also noted that the language of the book is extremely "rich and challenging," which are key emphases of the common standards. Regarding concerns about the explicitness of the content, Costello said that "teachers, as professional educators, should be trusted to handle that."

"We pretend that teens don't know as much about these things as they really do," she added.

Photo: Author Toni Morrison looks out at the arriving audience before an interview earlier this year in New York.

—Bebeto Matthews/AP-File

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