Community opposes Tennessee school board’s attack on free speech, banning of Maus

The Severinghaus Library exhibit on Maus – Joey Kauffman ’23

Maus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel that recounts a Jewish family’s story in the Holocaust, is summer reading for the Fouth Form World History course. It is a remarkably engaging way to expose students to Holocaust history. Thus, community members were shocked to see the national news that a school board in McMinn County, Tennessee, unanimously voted to remove Maus from their classrooms (specifically an eighth-grade curriculum) because of the book’s “unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide.

“When I first read [Maus] in the 1990s, I thought it was fantastic,” World History teacher Mr. Kevin Tryon said. “[Maus] is such a good story; it’s such an accessible story.”

Mr. Tryon has seen Maus’s effectiveness in engaging students in the complicated subject of the Holocaust, especially through its depiction of the character of Vladek, a father and a Holocaust survivor.

“For some students, there’s a lack of knowledge about the Holocaust. And Maus is so easily accessible… Like any text, I think it’s just a lens, or a window, into a past that [students] might not have clarity on,” Mr. Tryon said.

While Mr. Tryon didn’t pin the banning of Maus explicitly on antisemitism, he couldn’t see validity behind the reasoning of banning the book based on obscenity.

“I just am flabbergasted by that idea that profanity or nudity is the standard by which they’re basing this,” Mr. Tryon said. 

Community members beyond the history department have also come to oppose the ban. When Ms. Brown, Director of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion, first read the news of Maus’s banning, she responded by going to the library and reading the book.

“The first thing I thought about was, ‘I should read it,’ because I don’t think you can comment on something that you haven’t read, and I wasn’t familiar with the text,” Ms. Brown said. 

She went into the reading unbiased, purposefully having not looked at the rationale behind Maus’s banning, so as not to influence her reading of the book. What she found, after reading the book, was that the ban didn’t make sense. 

“I wonder if the folks who banned the book actually read the book, and I don’t think they did.”

Ms. Rhonda Brown

“I wonder if the folks who banned the book actually read the book, and I don’t think they did,” Ms. Brown said.

The conversation she had been reading from the people who banned the book was based on Maus’s use of a specific set of bad words. But after reading the book, Ms. Brown couldn’t recall any obscene language in Maus.

“And so if I can’t think about what [the bad words] were, that means they couldn’t have changed the story drastically, or they were appropriate in the placement as to where they were,” Ms. Brown said.

Confronted with this evidence, Ms. Brown struggled to see the purpose of the ban. 

“[The school board] didn’t like these eight words, and so they would throw out an entire novel for what it can do, one that they based a whole module of study around, for eight words? When they could have been redacted?” Ms. Brown said. “So I just don’t understand it.” 

The banning of Maus might seem like a distant, insignificant problem, but it is nonetheless an attack on free speech that demands a response from those who care about literature and expression. 

“The response to a question of freedom of speech is always more speech,” Ms. Brown said. “When someone feels that speech is being limited, the best way to address it is to speak more about it.”

Connor Pinsk ’23 marvels at Maus- Ryan Rodack ’22

Severinghaus Library, in an act of support of free expression, displayed a copy of Maus I and II along with a printout of an article about the banning. This exhibit is a clear action that positions Haverford in opposition to the banning of books.

“For librarians generally, as a profession, our job is to provide access, and when someone else decides who [can] and who cannot have access, that’s something that librarians just really do not like,” Head of Information Services Ms. Lisa Snyder said. 

Restricting access to books hurts children, plain and simple. Avid reader and Pegasus editor-in-chief Will Cordray believes in the power of books on the young mind. 

“I would say that I was formed by books,” Cordray said. “[Books] have been a large part of my understanding of the world, my opinions, my ideas.”

In a culture that has increasingly strayed from books, many educators and students believe censoring the books kids find in libraries is a cruel attack on young readers. Removing a book from a school’s curriculum because of unknown, likely deeply ignorant motives, distorts the journey of readers and lovers of knowledge like Cordray. 

Cordray noticed the sad irony that Maus, a book about the evils of Nazis, is now facing a situation similar to that of the countless books burned in Nazi Germany. 

“It’s reminiscent of the Nazi book burnings, where essentially it’s like, this is our way to communicate knowledge and communicate history and communicate our society,” Will said.

Art Spiegelman, author of Maus- Wikimedia Commons

It’s difficult to make sense of Maus’s ban. We don’t know how relentless or destructive this push to limit free speech will be in the coming years. Mr. Tryon emphasized that fostering a dedication to the truth, to having a fact-based understanding of the past, isn’t about adopting any one view of history as much as it is about having broad, accurate depictions of history before coming to one’s own conclusions.

“History is an argument about the past,” Mr. Tryon said. He acknowledged that there are some situations where we should accept one historical interpretation as truth, but this hardly accounts for all of history. 

“Our job is to basically sift through the evidence and try and figure out which argument is most logical and credible based on what we have,” Mr. Tryon said. 

Giving students access to Maus means giving them an accurate, compelling narrative about the Holocaust. Mr. Tryon referenced a statistic: one survey found 23% of American adults from the ages 18-39 said they believed “the Holocaust was a myth, had been exaggerated or they weren’t sure.” 

“And as all your Holocaust survivors are at the point where they’re recently dead or very very old, you wonder how their story will resonate through future generations,” Mr. Tryon said.

Author: Joey Kauffman '23

Joey Kauffman is an Editor-In-Chief for The Index for the 2022-23 school year. He previously served as a Managing Editor, where he won a Gold Key from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards for his opinion piece “Start Language Learning in Lower School.” His review of the movie "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" also earned him second place in the Pennsylvania Press Club Annual High School Journalism Contest. In May of 2023, Joey’s features piece, “Controversy swirls around fan section nickname” won second place in the National Federation of Press Women High School Journalism Contest after winning the Pennsylvania competition.