Every once in a while, a keen group of helicopter parents—or else, an overzealous collection of educators—decides that classic novels are no longer suitable for the classroom. Lest their teenagers suddenly become privy to the knowledge that the world is not, in fact, butterflies and rainbows, these guardians decide that books such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn can’t be taught unless all of its dirty words are removed. Further to that, some have suggested that Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is far too controversial for the classroom and heaven help you if you let an adolescent of faith near The Handmaid’s Tale.
The latest target in this already-tired tirade is Timothy Findley’s The Wars, an award-winning Canadian novel about a young officer fighting in World War I. Parents in the Owen Sound area of Ontario are petitioning to have the book removed from all classrooms under the Bluewater District School Board’s jurisdiction. Why? In a meeting with board trustees, one parent remarked: “The book includes a number of very explicit and detailed descriptions of sexual encounters, most of them exploitive and violent.” It is “inappropriate to be presented to a class of young people,” she said.
Indeed, The Wars is not of the same creed as Goodnight Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The book depicts violent exploits (it is war, after all), a scene in a whorehouse, and an act of gang rape by Canadian soldiers. Undeniably, The Wars is not a feel-good tale. But then again, war stories rarely are.
Depriving students of the chance to read and discuss The Wars not only robs them of a great novel, but also denies them the opportunity to learn about and discuss contentious issues in a relatively safe environment. Whether aged 17 in an English class, or 21 and flipping through late-night TV, the term “whorehouse” might come up (*gasp*), so why not talk about it in a controlled setting?
Many students in Grade 12 (the year during which the novel is typically taught) are gearing up to head to college, university, or enter the workforce in a few months. By that time, unfortunately, there will few people around to cover their ears if someone says a curse. High school students should be guided, not coddled.