The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The removal of ‘Maus’ from a middle-school curriculum reflects an old debate, not a new one

A person in March 2008 prepares an exhibition featuring images from the graphic novel “Maus” at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam. (Evert Elzinga/AP)

McMinn County, Tenn., is about 100 miles north of Atlanta. It’s rural and conservative, though such descriptors tend to be redundant. In 2020, voters there supported Donald Trump for president by a margin of more than 60 percentage points.

Earlier this month, the county school board considered and then unanimously approved a measure to withdraw the graphic novel “Maus” from the school district’s eighth-grade curriculum. And while we should be hesitant to extrapolate from the decisions of one group of 10 administrators in one county of 53,000 people, the decision does offer useful insights into how the national conversation over censorship has evolved — and how it hasn’t.

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“Maus” is a story about the Holocaust. Specifically, it centers on the protagonist, a mouse who serves as a proxy for author Art Spiegelman, interviewing his father about his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. His father is also depicted as a mouse; the Nazi guards are depicted as cats. The book includes imagery that is deeply unsettling, as one would expect of a visual exploration of the Holocaust.

It also uses a few words that are not ones that an eighth-grade teacher would want to hear from students — which was very much part of the debate over whether the book should be part of the district’s curriculum, as is clear from the minutes of the meeting where the vote occurred.

The minutes are revealing. What emerges is a decision driven not by the political rhetoric that is prominent in the national conversation of the moment but by more conventional (or, if you will, traditional) concerns about bad words and naked ladies. The discussion around the censorship is not centrally one about how the woke left is trying to poison kids’ minds but, instead, about how maybe they can just white-out some of the swearing.

It was board member Rob Shamblin who best (unintentionally) summarized the debate. Members of the board were pushing back on concerns that editing the book’s contents was a violation of copyright.

“Surely removing the full four letters of a four-letter word doesn’t change the intent of the author’s whole book,” he said, according to the minutes. “It just cleans it up.”

It’s overly facile to suggest that this statement implies an effort to “clean up” the Holocaust itself. But it’s very much to the point that a distinction is drawn between what the book is hoping to convey and how Spiegelman hoped to convey it. Art is often like a Jenga tower: Removing a piece may not cause it to topple, but it certainly changes what you’re looking at.

Much of the discussion about the graphic novel centered on its use of language. Members of the board repeatedly made the deeply dubious argument that there was somehow a contradiction between preventing children from using particular language in school and offering material that uses that same language. They did not extend this argument to its natural conclusion, that by showing students depictions of the mass murders of millions of people they were tacitly expressing approval of their students doing the same. How were those eighth-graders to know that imprisoning and torturing people for their faith was not allowed in school hallways? It’s right there in the book!

“I understand that on TV and maybe at home these kids hear worse,” board member Tony Allman said at one point, “but we are talking about things that if a student went down the hallway and said this, our disciplinary policy says they can be disciplined, and rightfully so.”

This, of course, is another central point: The idea that these eighth-grade kids have not been exposed to either swearing or nudity — nudity far more graphic than a cartoon — is ridiculous. The average age of exposure to pornography among boys — not nudity, but pornography — was 13 in a 2017 study. Exposure to swear words almost certainly comes far earlier. Will there be smart alecks who pester teachers by claiming they think swearin’ is okay because they read it in a schoolbook? Sure. Should teachers be able to handle that pretty easily? Uh, yeah.

“I am not denying it was horrible, brutal and cruel,” Allman said of the Holocaust. And then the but: “It’s like when you’re watching TV and a cuss word or nude scene comes on, it would be the same movie without it. Well, this would be the same book without it.”

“I may be wrong,” he continued, “but this guy that created the artwork used to do the graphics for Playboy.”

Spiegelman did, in fact, draw cartoons for Playboy. The salience of that experience here is nonexistent, for hopefully obvious reasons. But here we see a splash of moralizing that is more broadly intertwined with national rhetoric about what is and isn’t considered acceptable.

It was board member Mike Cochran, though, who was most deliberate about connecting the inclusion of “Maus” to some purported effort to poison kids’ minds — the sort of claim that is at the heart of the recent right-wing focus on school curriculums.

“It looks like the entire curriculum is developed to normalize sexuality, normalize nudity and normalize vulgar language,” he said at one point. “If I was trying to indoctrinate somebody’s kids, this is how I would do it. You put this stuff just enough on the edges, so the parents don’t catch it, but the kids, they soak it in.”

At issue in “Maus,” one board member said, were eight words and that one picture. A subtle indoctrination effort indeed.

Cochran supported bowdlerizing material as necessary as when elementary school students were “reading books that have a picture of a naked man riding a bull.” That image was “not vulgar; it’s something you would see in an art gallery — but it’s unnecessary,” he said. “So, teachers have gone back and put tape over the guys’ butts so the kids aren’t exposed to it.”

But this was his point: “We don’t need this stuff to teach kids history. We can teach them history and we can teach them graphic history,” he said. “We can tell them exactly what happened, but we don’t need all the nakedness and all the other stuff.”

It is intensely weird in a deeply American way to take an award-winning book about the mass murder of millions of people, presented as a deeply personal, allegorical story about a family, and fret over eight bad words and a naked mouse. To figure that by covering up the endings “itch” and “amn” you were protecting the innocence of students very familiar with those words’ proper use. It’s the equivalent of handing out umbrellas to people floating in the ocean.

The decision in McMinn County appears not to be a story centrally about the hypocrisy of the political right complaining about Dr. Seuss while leveraging state power to muffle other discussions. Instead, it’s a much older story about the very specific purities America wants to defend.

Not that that is a significantly better story.