Jejudo, South Korea
A friend of mine sent me this; I thought I'd share it and see what reaction it brings. It's an issue that I may have to deal with in a few years (and I don't know what I'd do) but I'd like to know everyone's opinion. It seems to me a number of issues are confronted here, not only the title question but also the nature of education (value versus significance) and teacher discretion.
In other words, even if you agree that Howl should not be taught in high schools, did the teacher do enough to prevent the kind of actions that might be taken against him? How does one deal with this?
Tuesday, September 12, 2000
Story last updated at 12:53 a.m. on Tuesday, September 12, 2000
Teacher faces action over poem 'Howl'
By Laura Diamond
Times-Union staff writer
Amid protests that a poem was offensive, an English teacher at a Jacksonville high school was prohibited Monday from teaching the work that professors describe as crucial in understanding modern American poetry.
And the Forrest High teacher who distributed the poem, Jon Nerf, is being investigated by the school system. Superintendent John Fryer said yesterday it is likely some action will be taken against Nerf, but stressed it was too soon to say what it would be.
School Board Chairwoman Susan Wilkinson said she doubted Nerf would be fired.
Last week, Nerf gave copies of Howl by Allen Ginsberg to the 55 students in his Advanced Placement English classes. The course is for advanced students who take college-level work while in high school.
Written by the famous Beat generation poet in 1955, the ground-breaking poem attacks racism and the repression of sexual orientation and political and academic ideas prevalent during the 1950s. But it is the graphic description of homosexual acts that offended some members of the community.
"It is X-rated," said the Rev. Gene Cross of Wesconnett Freewill Baptist Church. His daughter Christie is in Nerf's class.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that this doesn't belong in schools," Cross said. "I built picket fences and church walls to protect my daughter from homosexuality in this raw and filthy manner."
Nerf, who has been at Forrest for 12 years, said he was advised by Duval Teachers United attorney David Hertz not to comment on the issue.
Forrest Principal Walter Carr said Nerf has a policy where students who find an assignment offensive may receive another one without being penalized. Of the 55 students in Nerf's advanced English classes this year, two asked for another assignment, including Cross' daughter, Carr said.
Nerf also sent a letter to parents at the beginning of the year explaining that students will be reading material that some may find questionable. The letter listed several works but did not include Howl, Carr said.
Howl has been hailed by many poets and professors as one of the most important works in modern American poetry.
"If you want to understand the development of the modern American poetry you have to read Howl," said James Smethurst, professor of English at the University of North Florida.
Smethurst described the poem as "revolutionary." The work inspired other poets who where trying to find a voice for American poems, he said.
"I would say there is not a single poet that has not been touched by Ginsberg's Howl," Smethurst said. "Some rebelled against it and others have been inspired by it. . . . If you want to know how American poetry got to be where it is, you have to read Howl."
Still, Cross said he did not like his daughter being asked to read the poem and called Carr and others in the school system to complain. Cross also faxed copies of the work to members of his church, many of whom also called Carr to complain.
Carr said he received calls from people who both opposed and supported the poem, which can be found on the Internet.
"We are a public high school and our real objective is to get students exposed to a wide range of works," Carr said. "If we were a college we would probably stand up and fight. But we are a high school and if something is this offensive to people, there are other poems for students to read. The students have plenty of time to read the work later in life."
Howl was not an approved curriculum item to be used in class, but teachers have the discretion to add materials they find relevant. Carr said the advanced English class has more leniency because it is college level but added that teachers must understand they are still working with high school students.
The school system has a policy where questionable materials can be reviewed by an instructional materials panel. The panel includes teachers, parents and administrators. The panel was not asked to review Howl.
And while students will not be reading the poem, the situation is not over.
Nerf has been interviewed by school system staff and a report is being completed on what disciplinary action should be taken against him. Fryer said a decision will be made within a couple of days.
"Academic freedom is one thing, but what we tell our students is another," Fryer said. "Our high schools need to reflect our community values."
Cross, who filed the complaint, said he trusts the School Board to make the right decision regarding Nerf.
"I don't want to attack the man," Cross said. "We just wanted the material removed. But, personally I don't think he needs to be in the classroom."