Last week, I posted about the Galloway School in Atlanta which included Mein Kampf on it’s Summer Reading Club list. I did not like it, one bit.
Suzanna Jemsby, the Head of School for the Galloway School, has responded to the criticism in her own post.
About three years ago, two students approached me and asked if we might intentionally relabel a unisex restroom at the front of the school as a gender inclusive restroom. They had great rationale. There were students in our midst who did not identify as cisgender; they wanted a restroom they could use that would respect their identity. To celebrate the decision, I wrote about the gender inclusive restroom on this very blog, only to receive some varied feedback from around the country. I responded where possible to each critic, diligently explaining our context and assuring them that I wasn’t advocating that every school install such restrooms, but that in our community it was the right thing to do. What is neat about the location of the gender inclusive restroom is that it is right at the front of the school, so that any visitor to the school who uses it is made aware from the get-go what we stand for.
Now, how does this link to the summer reading option of Mein Kampf? Well, I have once again found myself in the position of “defending” the school in the era of social media. At some point this week, our summer book selection was shared with people way beyond our community, people who don’t understand our context as a school, and who feel strongly that we should ban certain texts from our community. (They freely share their views online). They believe we should shield our young people from selected topics. We haven’t done that at Galloway, and I don’t believe now is the time to start doing so. We owe it to our young people to engage in healthy discussion and to put alternative perspectives in front of them. We are a richer community for it; and the world will be a richer place with our students in it.
So how did the book become part of this year’s summer reading? In May, a group of predominantly Jewish students approached the librarian at our school expressing their interest in reading Mein Kampf. Principally, they wanted to think about modern leadership in the world, and Mein Kampf would create an interesting backdrop for the discussion. I can’t argue with that. I read the book in college, and it certainly led to fascinating discourse about leadership, among many other things. Anyone who knows teenagers knows that when there’s an interest in doing something, that something will likely happen if you create an arena for it or not. So, the librarian agreed to create the arena: she agreed to sponsor the book club and facilitate the conversation. Where better to have these conversations than in a school surrounded by experts?
As you might imagine with such a controversial book, it wasn’t all plain-sailing. A group of parents contact me concerned the inclusion of the book. Their concerns were many. Given our large population of Jewish families, how could we have been so inconsiderate? How would our students be able to comprehend its contents? Why should we even validate its existence by suggesting that students should comprehend its contents? As the conversation with the parents unfolded, the experts outside our community joined the conversation. To ensure that we could maximise the educational impact with the students, The Anti-Defamation League and the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust both weighed in with resources and committed to being present for the discussions with students.
On Wednesday of this past week, the first of the book club conversations took place. It was clear that our students had not only read the book closely, but that they had extraordinary insights and exceptional questions. They showed social maturity and an ability to contextualise their learning that belies their age.
I appreciate that there are many people outside our community who haven’t had the privilege of meeting our students, or of witnessing the level of intellectual dialogue that this book has engendered. I also appreciate that reading Mein Kampfisn’t for every community, just as gender inclusive restrooms aren’t culturally appropriate everywhere. Perhaps most of all I appreciate how difficult it is to prove to those outside of our community that the decision not to ban this book (or others) was the right decision.
While it is good to know the ADL are involved, I still have my concerns. Thoughts?