Think of the Children! Tough Issues and Age Appropriateness

Is Art Spiegelman’s Maus appropriate for children? How do you teach children about tough topics like the Holocaust? When is it appropriate to teach children about the parts of history, and the parts of the present, that are messy, ugly, and violent? What is appropriate?

These were some of the questions that came up in class this week after one of my classmates mentioned that he had first seen Maus in the juvenile section of his public library. Spiegelman did not write Maus as a book for children, but does that mean children should not read it? Will it be too much for kids? Will it go over their heads? Our discussion made me think about how we teach children about the ugly sides of history and the present and how we decide what topics appropriate and inappropriate for them to learn about.

I don’t think I learned about racism, sexism, or classism in a formal educational setting with much depth until I entered college, which seems like a pretty gross oversight in my early education. I remember learning some of the basics about slavery in elementary school and I too read Number the Stars, but most of the history I learned in school was fairly sanitized, and we certainly were not taught about all the racism, sexism, and classism that still exists in American society. I wish I had been better prepared to understand why these aspects of modern society when I was younger. So why don’t we teach kids these things in school (or do we? maybe schools have changed in the last 10-15 years, but I doubt they’ve changed all that much)? Is it because we don’t think kids can handle some of these issues? Is it because adults can’t handle some of these issues? Are we really protecting kids? And what from?

The recent hullabaloo in the Chicago Public Schools over Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir Persepolis is a perfect example. The book was pulled from library and classroom shelves on March 14-15 because, apparently, “it contains graphic language and images that are not appropriate for general use in the 7th-grade curriculum.” [1] CPS teachers will be allowed to teach the book in grades 8 and above, but only after special training. Is the content of Persepolis really so much more damaging than what Chicago Public School children are exposed to on the news and in their daily lives?

Noah Berlatsky, writing about the Persepolis incident argues that American schools are censoring history in ugly ways. He writes about his experiences working as an educational writer, being told not to include passages on an American history exam about storms at sea, rats, alcohol, love, death, and slavery. He also mentions a colleague, “working on a world history course [who] was told not to include the fact that gay people were targeted during the Holocaust.” [2] When I think about my education, this does not surprise me all that much.

[1] Phil Morehart, “Persepolis Stays in Chicago Public Schools, But Out of Classrooms” American Libraries Link

[2] Noah Berlatsky, “Sex, Violence, and Radical Islam: Why ‘Persepolis’ Belongs in Public Schools,” The Atlantic Link

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