A Brave New World controversy

Nov 17, 2010, 2:33 AM | Updated: Mar 28, 2011, 3:46 pm

Something 10th graders at Nathan Hale High School in Seattle did was so upsetting to a student and her mom that it’s resulted in a curriculum change at the school, and apologies from the principal.

What were they doing? Reading. Reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as part of their language arts curriculum.

BraveNewWorldWhile the book is the center of a new controversy in Seattle, the debate about the fictional story has gone on for decades. The American Library Association ranks Brave New World as number 36 on the list of the top 100 books people have either banned or tried to ban.

Set in the year 2540, the book depicts a world in which everyone’s life is predetermined. Boys and girls are conditioned at birth to fulfill already designated societal roles. As a result, everyone grows up happy. Or, almost everyone. The conflict in the novel arises when a few people try to fight the system that’s running and ruining their lives.

Sarah Sense-Wilson’s daughter was required to read the novel for a class at Nathan Hale. She is Native American, and her heart started to sink as she turned the pages to find more than 30 references to “savage natives.”

“She was very upset and she said, ‘Mom I need to tell you something, but I don’t want you to get mad. There’s a book I have to read in my class and it portrays Indian people as being savages and living on reservations,'” Sense-Wilson says.

She tried to read the book for herself.

“I was outraged when I read through the book. I had to keep putting it down because it was so hurtful,” says Sense-Wilson. “It was traumatizing to read how Indian people were being depicted.”

The text has a “high volume of racially offensive derogatory language and misinformation on Native Americans. In addition to the inaccurate imagery, and stereotype views, the text lacks literary value which is relevant to today’s contemporary multicultural society,” she wrote in a complaint earlier this year to Nathan Hale and district administrators.

How important is Brave New World for the 10th grade language arts curriculum at Nathan Hale?

The chair of the language arts department, Shannon Conner, defended the merits of the book calling it a “superb warning book about our future. Huxley cautions his future readers from becoming too reliant on, and compliant with, technology.” But at the same time, the high school apologized and determined that the “cultural insensitivity embedded in this book makes it an inappropriate choice as a central text in our 10th grade curriculum.”

They are no longer using the book. Sense-Wilson says she’s “proud of” the way Nathan Hale has responded.

“They’ve really listened, they have invited us to be part of the school, they now have a a native club and they’re extending themselves to really try to repair that damage,” she says.

Why is this book still an issue? Sense-Wilson wants other high schools in Seattle to stop using it in their curriculum too. The Seattle School board is meeting this afternoon to discuss the use of the book Brave New World.

Sense-Wilson wants to make her position clear. She is not trying to ban the book.

“We are not about book burning and we’re not radicals,” she says. “We’re not trying to in any way censor that book, we’re just saying it does not belong in high school. It is not appropriate for the curriculum.”

If the book is an important or interesting novel for teenagers, she suggests putting it in the library.

“Then if students want to go to the library and check that book out and read it for their own entertainment, that’s fine,” says Sense-Wilson. “Most of the kids I’ve talked to don’t even like the book so I doubt it would even get an audience in the library.”

Incidentally, any resident in the Seattle school district, or any parent or guardian of a child enrolled in the district, may challenge instructional materials schools use. The district has a 10-step process to determine if the complaint about a book or material is justified.

Update: Brave New World approved in Seattle high schools

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