A 1932 classic that foreshadows a dystopic future society has drawn sharp criticism from Cape Henlopen School District parents who say the book is too sexual.
“I don't think it's appropriate for 16- and 17-year-old kids,” said parent Ronald Hagan, who attended the March 27 school board meeting.
Hagan said he is concerned about students in an Advanced Placement class reading Aldous Huxley's “Brave New World.” The book, written in 1932, is about a futuristic society where everyone is beautiful and happy. Babies are hatched in factories and are conditioned to serve in specific social classes. “Mother” and “father” have become dirty words, a 1960s love-the-one-your-with attitude prevails and citizens routinely pop pills to avoid unpleasant situations. For decades, the book has been assigned reading for high school students.
Hagan said the “Brave New World” was the latest in a trend of sexually explicit material that has been used in the AP class. Earlier in the year, he said, students were told to view a couple of music videos that contained sexual material.
“Why do we have so much sexual content in a language arts class?” Hagan asked.
School board member Sandi Minard said parents complained to her about two music videos that students in the AP class were asked to watch – “Blurred Lines” and “Hard out Here.” The videos were part of an assignment showing how women are portrayed in today's society, Minard said. While an edited version of the video exists, an Internet search of “Blurred Lines” brings up an explicit version, complete with nearly full frontal nudity as one of the first selections.
Parents complained to the administration about the videos, but the issue resurfaced when the teacher assigned “Brave New World” to the class.
“We have to be mindful that our kids can't go to Midway and watch an R-rated movie, but we can have them read a book that would be R-rated if it were made a movie,” she said.
Neither Minard or board member Jen Burton said they want to ban the book – it comes down to parental choice.
“If we have a choice, why can't we chose something that's not sexually explicit,” Burton said. “We can choose other books to show a dystopic society.”
Board Vice President Roni Posner defended “Brave New World” as required reading material for any student seeking a college education.
“For us to pull it out of the curriculum would be hurtful,” Posner said. “If there are parents who do not want their children to read the book, then they shouldn't have to read it.”
Speaking at the board meeting, Esther Shelton said the point of the book is to show a dystopic society. “It is a book that has a message people need to get,” she said.
Parent Maria Evans agreed Huxley's novel should remain required reading.
“Leave this very good book as part of the high school curriculum,” she said.
The overwhelming theme of the book is the loss of the individual and government control, said Lea Tomer, young adult services librarian for the Lewes Public Library. While sexual promiscuity is portrayed in the novel, she said, it is part of Huxley's negative description of a futuristic society.
“It's a small piece of the overall picture,” Tomer said.
Random House ranked “Brave New World” fifth in the top 100 English language novels over the 20th century.
Although written before World War II, “Brave New World” predicted a pharmaceutical-driven society obsessed with looks, not entirely different from today's world, Tomer said.
“It's all very relevant,” she said. “If they are reading it and talking about it in class, it has to be thought-provoking.”
Huxley's dystopic world depicts society divided into classes with alpha the most privileged and beautiful class with the best jobs. Beta, gamma, delta and epsilon round out the remaining lower classes. In this new world order, factories mass produce embryos, which are “hatched.” There are no more families; government employees condition children to work and act according to their class.
Tomer said the concept of a dystopic society is a common topic in some of today's most popular literature. Both “The Hunger Games” trilogy and “Divergent” trilogy explore class-divided societies and feature protagonists who strive to change the system.
“'Brave New World' correlates nicely with those books,” Tomer said.
Board member Noble Prettyman took issue with Minard appearing March 14 on a local radio show to discuss material she says contains inappropriate sexual content for high school students.
“I feel like it was the wrong time,” he said. “I don't feel comfortable with what you have done.”
The Cape Henlopen Education Association also weighed in on the matter in a letter sent March 27. In it CHEA Secretary Amanda Jester said Minard violated the current contract, board policy and state law by discussing issues with a teacher on a radio station. Jester did not say specifically how Minard violated the law, policy or contract, but included an addendum outlining those rules.
Minard said she never mentioned the teacher's name, and she does not see where she may have violated the contract, board or state law.
“I believe that board members have every right to discuss with one person or a million people the issues of the district,” she said.
During the board meeting, Minard stated, “I was elected to be a watchdog not a cheerleader.”
School board President Spencer Brittingham may have summed up the issue for many whose memories of Huxley's classic have grown dim.
“I'm going to have to read the book in the next two weeks,” he said.
The board next meets at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 10, at Mariner Middle School.