For years, Art Spiegelman’s acclaimed graphic novel Maus has been taught in schools across the world, both because of the digestible, but chillingly authentic way it depicts the horrors of the Holocaust, and because it’s one of the masterpieces of the comics medium. It’s the only graphic novel to ever win a Pulitzer prize, and academics have used it to teach history, psychology, and more. And this means nothing to the school board of McMinn country, Tennessee.
As CNN reports, the 10-member board voted—unanimously—to remove Maus from its eighth-grade literary curriculum because of its “objectionable language” and nudity back on January 10, despite arguments from instructional supervisors. But clearly, the content of the series was also in the board’s collective minds. According to the minutes of the meeting, board member Tony Allman said, “We don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff. It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy.”
Why promote Maus? Because the Holocaust was real, and it’s incredibly important that everyone learn about it and no one forgets it. What makes Maus such a special way to teach this to young teens is two-fold. First, by depicting Jews as mice and Nazis as cats, it makes the narrative just unreal enough that it can be processed by young readers while still faithfully depicting the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. Second, the story is wholly authentic—Maus is not only Art Spiegelman’s autobiography of his talks with his father Vladek about the latter’s experiences in World War II, but it’s also a biography of his father, visually depicting his life before, during, and after his time in the Auschwitz concentration camp. That nudity, by the way, comes from a lone panel of Art’s mother Anja, who committed suicide by cutting her wrists in a bathtub in 1968. It couldn’t be less salacious.
“I’m trying to, like, wrap my brain around it,” Spiegelman said during an interview on CNN’s New Day about the banning. “I think they’re so myopic in their focus and they’re so afraid of what’s implied and having to defend the decision to teach Maus as part of the curriculum that it led to this kind of daffily myopic response.”
Whatever the reason, taking Maus off its teaching curriculum is an unequivocally bad thing, which is echoed in the dozens upon dozens of news outlets around the world reporting on the events in a single Tennessee country school board meeting. In part, this is because it comes at a time when there are several high profile pushes by Republican lawmakers across the country looking to empower parents to influence reading material in educational curriculums, tied to a wider push back on the right-wing scapegoat of “Critical Race Theory”—twisted to perceive any actual aspect of American history and the nation’s treatment of minorities that could be considered “offensive” to white parents. Will the literally international uproar cause those 10 board members to change their minds about Maus? Sadly, probably not. But maybe there are other small towns who will see the scorn for McMinn county, and think twice before they decide to ban an important book.
Update 1/27/2022, 6:00 p.m. ET: The McMinn County School Board has released a statement clarifying its decision. It’s below.
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