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Should 8-Year-Olds Be Reading Stories That Glorify Rape?

After her 2nd grader was assigned a story that glorifies rape and extols whiteness as the standard for beauty, a mother tackles bias in elementary school literature head on.

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Second, the series is aligned to individual state standards and to the Common Core. The state in which we live recently adopted the Common Core, and educators here are spending an untold number of hours realigning desired instructional outcomes to them. The Junior Great Books—marketed as “the cure for the Common Core!”—are more than welcome in this regard.

Third, the foundation promises access to “readings of high literary merit that are rich in discussible ideas” and touts selections from award-winning authors. My daughter’s book includes a story by Anne Sibley O’Brien, who has received the National Education Association’s Author-Illustrator Human and Civil Rights Award and the Aesop Prize, as well as a selection from storyteller Diane Wolkstein, recipient of the National Storytelling Association’s Circle of Excellence Award.

Fourth, the series is marketed as appropriate for use with diverse learners. All images, videos, and samples on the foundation’s K-12 website feature racially and ethnically diverse students, an important selling point for most public schools.

So it’s not surprising that many schools are taking advantage of these offerings: “The K-12 program provides low-cost educational materials to over 5,000 schools with more than 1,000,000 students.”

Unfortunately, the adoption of these materials reflects a trend that extends well beyond Junior Great Books themselves. Concerns about the “narrowing of the curriculum” under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) often focus on the short shrift given to subjects like social studies, music, and art. The truth is that curriculum is also narrowing in language arts and math classrooms, where content increasingly is restricted to materials, like Junior Great Books, that are “proven” to boost test scores. School purchasing decisions have become highly dependent on products’ alignment with standards and the presence of a “skill-supporting research base.” 1 In the elementary context, 92 percent of teachers report that their districts have implemented “curriculum to put more emphasis on content and skills covered on state tests used for NCLB.” 2

Reflecting Conservative Norms?

I was unable to find any criticism of Junior Great Books in general or of “The Selkie Girl” in specific. (This latter absence may reflect the fact that the most recent copyright date for a story in my daughter’s book is 1993.) That said, there were two things I discovered about the Great Books Foundation that might give someone pause.

The foundation was established in 1947 with the goal “to encourage Americans from all walks of life to participate in a ‘Great Conversation’ with the authors of some of the most significant works in the Western tradition.” Its Junior Great Books program, launched in 1962, relied heavily on excerpts of selections—including Pilgrim’s Progress and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—from the original adult program. Although the foundation’s canon certainly has expanded over time, its genesis as an advancer of the male- and white-centric “Western tradition” raises a yellow flag.

The foundation’s board of directors is chaired by Alex J. Pollock, who works at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), one of the nation’s most influential conservative think tanks. Mr. Pollock’s expertise lies in financial policy issues, but, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has noted, “While its roots are in pro-business values, AEI in recent years has sponsored scholars whose views are seen by many as bigoted or even racist.” 3

For example, longstanding AEI fellow Charles Murray is best known as co-author of The Bell Curve, which infamously argues that whites are inherently more intelligent than blacks and Latina/os. He has argued forcefully elsewhere that the nation’s interests are best served, not by affording all children access to a quality education through college, but by focusing on the needs of “gifted” children. Meanwhile, AEI’s longtime resident expert on gender issues is Christina Hoff Sommers, widely known for her scathing critiques of contemporary feminism. Hoff Sommers has strongly criticized what she sees as an anti-boy culture in schools, specifically the use of “feminized” literature. 4 More broadly, AEI exercised significant influence over the policies established under the second President Bush. As People for the American Way notes: “President George W. Bush appointed over a dozen people from AEI to senior positions in his administration.”