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Satan and Sex in School: A Worldwide Plot

By Caldwell Ticomb

THE STATE OF MAINE has never been exactly famous for being in the vanguard of secondary-school education. It was not long ago that the spotlight of ridicule and contempt fell on the eastern coastal town of Blue Hill when school officials prevented valedictorian Russell Salsbury from delivering his prepared valedictory address at graduation exercises. The reason given was that the young man's ideas "sounded pink" and seemed "dangerous." The incident received much publicity both inside and outside the state; I myself, as a Maine native, entered publicly into the fray. As it turned out, young Salsbury came to Harvard on a fat scholarship and received his degree without subverting anyone in the process.

In my own home-town high school, a teacher was castigated for recommending Salinger's celebrated Catcher in the Rye as the basis of a book report. And a department head in southern Maine refused to allow Sophocles' Oedipus Rex to be taught!

During the last academic year the focus shifted to the western part of the: state, specifically to the town of Bethel and Telstar Regional High School, where a spirited controversy raged. This time the trouble sprang from three novels chosen by Tom Marmo of Telstar's English department for his course called "Youth Through the Ages."

The daughter of the Rev. Linwood Hanson, minister of the Baptist Church in nearby Byrant Pond, came home from the school and complained to her parents of "vulgar" content in her assigned reading. The minister and his wife sampled parts of the three novels and said they "were shocked." The Rev. Hanson branded the books as part of a "worldwide plot by Satan to teach young people to laugh at God," and resolved forthwith to get them removed from the school curriculum." I oppose their use on the grounds that they convey the idea that everyone lives like it says in the books," he stated ungrammatically, "and that teachers and churches approve that kind of life."

Furthermore, he claimed that the writing was filled with "foul language, obscenity, and indecent sexual acts." One of the several criteria for obscenity set forth by the U. S. Supreme Court insists that "the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest." Yet the Hansons could not have judged the material "as a whole" since they admitted that they had looked at only parts of the books. And some of the score of "concerned citizens" who joined the Hansons in signing a petition of complaint had not read a single paragraph of the allegedly offensive material-a clear case of the blind leading the blind.

JUST what are the three books that the minister and his flock have found so satanic and obscene? The first one is Hermann Hesse's Demian, first published in 1919. Hesse happens to be one of the titans of modern literature, and his fiction earned him the Nobel Prize in 1946. Demian is the deeply probing tale of an adolescent's passage through various stages of spiritual turmoil to a final self-realization under the influence of a slightly older and rather mysterious friend and guide. There is an overlay of symbolism and surrealism, and a Jungian concern with the workings of the subconscious.

The work is beautifully written, and is generally recognized as a masterpiece. As another Nobel laureate, Thomas Mann, wrote: "The electrifying influence exercised on a whole generation just after the First World War by Demian ... is unforgetable. With uncanny accuracy this poetic work struck the nerve of the times and called forth grateful rapture from a whole youthful generation who believed that an interpreter of their innermost life had risen from their own midst." The novel's appeal has continued over the years, and it speaks (as do other Hesse novels, particularly Steppenwolf and Siddhartha ) with especial force to today's young people-whether they are questioning, confused, alienated, or depressed.

The second offender is the 1965 novel The Emperor of Ice-Cream, by Brian Moore, an Irish-born writer now in his forties and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Governor General of Canada's Award for Fiction, and other honors.

This book, laid in Ireland at the start of World War II, tells of a 17-year-old. Everylad who feels himself a failure and is at odds with his father and siblings. The work possesses authenticity and humor; the writing is literate and well above average. The weaker portions are overshadowed by the tremendous impact of the final pages, where the boy finds a meaning for his life as he works to help victims of a German bombing-raid.

Mr. Marino, the Telstar teacher, voicing surprise and hurt at the furor, rightly defended his choice of the book by pointing to its appropriate handling of adolescent problems such as parental relationships, drinking, love, religion, and moral dilemmas.

Exhibit number three is Daniel Keves' 1966 novel, Flowers for Algernon. Keyes holds two degrees, has taught high-school and college English, and is now, at 42, lecturer in English at Ohio University. In its original shorter form. Flowers for Algernon won the Hugo Award as the best science novelette; it became an effective television play; in its expanded form it won the best novel-of-the-year Nebula Award; and it is the basis for the recent movie Charly (which, for ali its strong points does not come close to matching the book).

Keyes' fantasy, only slightly improbable, explores the effects of a brain operation that turns a 32-year-old moron into an intellectual genius, but one still plagued by psychic traumas inflicted in childhood. Cast in the form of the protagonist's diary entries, his is one of the most extraordinary books of the decade. Reading it is an amazing educational experience. One gets to understand the learning process, society's attitudes toward the mentally retarded, the difference between intellectual and emotional maturity, and the essence of human dignity. The author shows here a masterly ability to handle sensitive insights, pathos, humor, and scientific technicalities in a wonderfully enlightening blend. One cannot close this book without having become a better person than when he opened it.

SO THERE they are: a supreme book, a good book, and a superior book. Yet the Rev. Hanson said of them that literary value "may be hard to find." Furthermore, another of the Supreme Court's criteria for obscenity requires that a work be "utterly without redeeming social value," whereas each of these three works-literary quality aside-is clearly a document of unusual social significance and value.

The local School Superintendent, Ralph Ryder, described Tom Marino as "an outstanding teacher," and I suspect he is right. It would be hard to come up with three books more suitable than these for engaging and stretching the minds of today's high-school teenagers. What a far cry this is from the bland pap and drivel-such as the verse of Edgar Guest-that I had to study (and memorize!) when attending high school in Maine some years ago. I am sorry I didn't have as sage an English teacher as Mr. Marino, and Telstar High should regret that it will not have his services any more. (Marino, born in Springfield, N. J., taught high-school English in Plymouth. Mass., year before last, and, starting this fall, is devoting himself to a newly-founded private school in Waterford, a few miles south of Bethel.)

For his part, the Rev. Hanson pressed forward his campaign and launched a formal complaint with the Board of Directors of School Administrative District 44, which has jurisdiction over Telstar High. The Board voted sixteen to one to appoint an investigating committee. The sole dissenter, Richard Davis, based his vote on his blanket opposition to all kinds of censorship, adding that he had read the material in question and found it "in line with the literature being published today."

The result was the formation of a Book Review Committee, consisting of four members and two advisors (including Supt. Ryder). Last spring the Committee issued an official report of its activities and findings. The Committee decided to meet with members of the Telstar English Department in order to elicit its educational philosophy. They learned that the teachers viewed their task not as one of "getting students to memorize rules of grammar and traditional pieces of valued poetry," but rather as one of trying to "have students exposed to differing ideas and value systems in an effort to have them arrive at a personal view of themselves, humanity, and the environment in which they must involve themselves."

Subsequently the Committee met with the Rev. Hanson and four of his supporters. This quintet aimed most of its artillery at the second book, The Emperor of ice-cream. Particular objection was voiced (1) to the protagonist's "irreverent" references to a statue and to his mother's religious values; (2) to the "gutter language" and reference to various anatomical organs: and (3) to two admittedly unconsummated sexual scenes that, it was felt, "could not help but sexually arouse children and adults alike."

After some discussion, the Rev. Hanson stated that the book was not "the real problem." What needed changing, he claimed, was the entire "humanities" approach of the English department, an approach that "poses many questions, but does not present answers." The minister went on to claim that "this humanistic approach presents a 'false God.'" and that "Telstar might go the way of many college campuses toward socialism and communism" (shades of the earlier Blue Hill fracas!).

At its final meeting, the Review Committee agreed unanimously to recommend to the full Board of Directors of SAD 44 that the reading not be removed from the English curriculum. At the same time, it called attention to a policy, already adopted by the Board long before the current controversy according to which a parent's request to remove a specific book assignment for his child will be honored.

IN THIS skirmish, then, the forces of light and right seem to have triumphed for a change. But the Rev. Hanson carried his campaign into the pages of The Leaflet, the official organ of the New England Association of Teachers of English, by contributing his article "Choosing Literature" to the May 1969 issue, in which he branded books like the three above as "immoral," "degenerate," and "worthless trash."

It is safe to say, then, that neither Maine nor any other state has seen the end of the Linwood Hansons of the world, who must be tirelessly resisted whenever they arise. As to the three novels (all available in paperback), I commend them to any adolescent, and to any adult. I especially commend them to the Rev. Hanson and his self-righteous cohorts, whom I strongly urge to make an effort to move ahead and join the rest of us in the twentieth century. In the meantime, the Tom Marinos among us may take heart from the remark of Hesse's Demian that "people with courage and character always seem sinister to the rest."

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