Alaska schools pull ‘The Great Gatsby’ as too ‘controversial’ for class

Leonardo DiCaprio is shown as Jay Gatsby in the 2013 film 'The Great Gatsby.'. Warner Bros. Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic book, The Great Gatsby, has challenged and bored millions of high school English students over the nearly 100 years since it was published.

There are no reports that the book has actually harmed anyone, old sport.

Nevertheless, the Mat-Su Borough School District in Alaska has voted to bar teachers from using the overly “sexual” Gatsby and four other decades-old, highly acclaimed books in lessons next fall, amid concerns that the novels are too “controversial” for students.

The prohibited books are:

  • The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, published in 1925
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou, published in 1969
  • Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, published in 1961
  • The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, published in 1990
  • Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, published in 1952

The school board voted 5-2 to remove the books from the high school curriculum because they included content that could potentially harm students, board vice president Jim Hart told NBC News.

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Hart offered a bizarre explanation for the ruling, claiming without evidence that the books would not be allowed in an office or corporate setting.

“If I were to read these in a corporate environment, in an office environment, I would be dragged into [human resources],” he told NBC News.

The other question is whether anyone, anywhere, ever, has been punished for reading The Great Gatsby at work over the last century. The book does not even contain the word “sex,” as an online copy of the entire manuscript shows.

The school board claimed the problem with Gatsby was “language and sexual references” on two pages, according to a summary from the meeting. Caged Bird was deemed controversial for sexual violence and alleged “anti-white messaging,” while Invisible Man was banned for “language, rape and incest.” Catch-22 and The Things They Carried were banned for violence, profanity and sexual references.

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“Is there a reason that we include books that we’ve labelled as controversial in our curriculum?” board member Jeff Taylor asked at the meeting, according to local station KTUU. “I would prefer they were gone.”

Board member Sara Welton challenged the move before voting not to remove the books from classrooms. “I think it’s beneficial to our students,” she said. “I think we might be doing a disservice to not provide that.”

The books are widely taught in high schools across the United States and Canada.

Documents from the board meeting show that several other canonical books were spared from the chopping block, including Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.

Board members also considered removing Thomas Payne’s most famous work, Common Sense, from the curriculum.

It’s unclear how many members of the board opposed Common Sense, but the book ultimately survived last week’s cull.

The local teachers union quickly denounced the decision.

“This is a blatant effort to curtail critical thinking, stifle discussion and deprive our students of the opportunity to share, as a class, the experience of studying some of the most classic American literature,” Dianne K. Shibe, president of the Mat-Su Education Association, said in a statement.

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Shibe told NBC News that her members saw the books on the school board agenda, but they didn’t take the issue seriously “because these books had been used forever.

“Now in retrospect, it’s like ‘duh,'” she told NBC. “I could have seen this coming.”

She added that the decision is “not set in stone,” and the union will continue to push back ahead of the next school year.

Hart, who voted to remove the books from the curriculum, says they’re not “banned” and will still be available in libraries. He also claimed it’s unfair to ask teachers to deal with the subject matter contained in the books.

“These are teachers, not counsellors,” he said.

The school district’s Facebook page has been flooded with angry comments since the decision was announced.

“You guys are an international laughing stock,” user Fiona Archer wrote on Tuesday.

“Have you NOT read Harry Potter books?” another user wrote. “There’s more violence in that than Catch-22.”

“A foolish school board is no longer allowing a very good bunch of books to be part of the curriculum,” Damon Michaels wrote. “Keep living in your tiny insulated world, folks.”

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“Shame on you!” user A. Colin Flood added on Wednesday. “You have embarrassed yourselves in front of the whole world. Teach controversy. Open minds. Learn to think.”

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