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Containing the Classics: Tyrone High School Endured Campaign Against Classic Novels

Book banning and censorship happened at TASD in the early 1990s

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Current students may think that Banned Book Week has little relevance to our community but the Tyrone Area School District actually endured a censorship campaign from 1990 to 1993 in which members of the Tyrone Area School Board attacked and attempted to ban several literary classics from being taught by the English department.

From 1990 to 1993 hundreds of concerned community members attended numerous school board meetings over the issue of banning books from the English curriculum. The controversy began with demands to censor the classic short story Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates.

This cartoon about the Tyrone censorship issue appeared in the Altoona Mirror in 1990

This cartoon about the Tyrone censorship issue appeared in the Altoona Mirror in 1990

Altoona Mirror reporter Greg Bock was a senior at Tyrone High School at the time.  He was involved in student protests against the book banning.

“While [the short story by Oates] did contain some advanced themes and mild language, it didn’t strike me or other classmates as especially vulgar or filthy, as those in favor of the book banning painted it,” said Bock.

Other classics under attack in the school district during the 1990s were Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, and Night by Elie Wiesel.

According Dr. William Miller, the Tyrone Area School District Superintendent from 1971-2013, some school board members passed around photocopied literary excerpts, taken out of context, to campaign against the English curriculum.

“They attacked [Dr. Miller] continuously. The books were one of the greatest fights…The board meetings got really ugly. They tried to intimidate Steve [Everhart]; they tried to intimidate [Richard] Merryman,” said Mrs. Laura Harris, Tyrone resident and current middle and high school music teacher.

“The [school] atmosphere was strange,” said Bock, “The school board was sharply divided and a faction of members were using fear and intimidation to advance their agenda, the book banning being a part of that. It seemed surreal at times. It really didn’t affect us as students in any overt ways but there was a certain feeling that everything was being scrutinized.”

Besides going to school board meetings and writing letters to the editor, some individuals used other tactics to remove classics from the English curriculum.

One member of the community wrote a letter to the governor’s office in protest of some of the reading material. Written by a pastor of a nearby church, many references were made to the “filth” that the teachers were using in their classrooms. At one point, the author of the letter even suggests firing teachers who teach such literature. As the author writes, “If my memory serves me correctly, is not immorality one cause still in the School Code for the dismissal of a professional employee of a Public School District?”

The pastor and one of the school board members also made unscheduled visits to teachers’ classrooms. Current English teacher Steve Everhart, a new teacher at the time, recalls when they visited his classroom. He believes that their intention was to convince him to remove “immoral” books from his classroom by intimidating him.

However, there were many members of the community who opposed censoring classic literature at Tyrone School District.

One letter to the editor by Tyrone resident Faith Brown from January 1990 in the Daily Herald defended the short story, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Brown used the bible to demonstrate the importance of not judging a piece of reading material whose meaning has been misrepresented.  

final3

This article appeared in the Altoona Mirror on March 14, 1990

“I feel that the Joyce Carol Oates’s story cannot be judged when it has been taken out of context as Mr. Ramsey has done….By quoting a book out of context, [one has] misled readers to believe that the book is evil and immoral. Before judging any book, shouldn’t we give it the same consideration as we give the bible? That is, shouldn’t we read the whole book before judging it by its parts?” said Brown.

“A lot of books that they objected to were not even on our book lists; they were books that were on the recommended reading lists,” said Everhart.

During the censorship crusades, some of the students showed their support against the restricting of books. Five juniors and eleven seniors all wrote a letter to the editor showing their support of the school’s policies on literature. They disputed the claim that students were forced to read certain novels in class. They also disagreed with parents’ reasoning for banning books based on language.

“The upset parents might believe that their ‘children’ are too young to be subjected to such vulgarity in the classroom. As a  student, I know that once these students leave the classroom and walk down the halls, they hear almost every obscenity ever uttered,” said the students in the letter to the editor.

Teachers also defended the English curriculum. English Department Chairperson Larry Stump defended the right to teach classic novels against a pastor who believed in censorship during one of the school board meetings in March 1990.

However, according to Everhart and Miller, books were just the pretense that the censorship coalition of board members used to achieve their ulterior motives–forcing Dr. Miller to resign and to have a majority on the school board.

“The main objective was political power. They wanted to gain a majority on the school board, 5 out of 9,” said Everhart.

Tyrone was soon being satirized because of the extremism of some of the pro-censorship community members. Cartoons and articles in the Daily Herald and the Altoona Mirror poked fun at some of the most outspoken members of the community.

One editorial published in the Tyrone Daily Herald in April of 1992 lampooned the school board members who supported the book banning:

“Once again Tyrone is feeling the brunt of ridicule,” said the article, “it has now attained the dubious distinction of being a town which wants to drag its school system back into the age of chastity belts, book burnings, and puritanism…Guidance counselors are being cut and administrators being dumped in a vendetta against a superintendent who is being stalked with all the subtlety of an Elmer Fudd trying to get Bugs Bunny….All their machinations only thinly disguise their real purpose–a contract out on Dr. William Miller.”

Eventually, the community turned against the censorship coalition of the school board.

Groups such as the Network of Concerned Citizens and Families for Quality Education began to show the community the degradation of education occurring under some of the pro-censorship school board members. Ads in the Daily Herald as well as a broadcast across Central Pennsylvania on WTAJ helped to cement the community against the literary restrictionists on the school board.

No books were ever officially banned from the curriculum and many of the books which were under attack are read by Tyrone High School English students today.

There are many lessons that can be taken away from this experience in our community.

The basis of many religions, and of our government, is freedom of choice. Do not legislate morality, or allow others to do the same.”

— Dr. Miller

“I remember the experience as a great lesson in demagoguery,” said Bock, “The reality that people will quickly and enthusiastically get behind people who use fear and exaggeration to advance their agenda. The book ban was less about looking out for the students as it was an avenue for certain people on the board and off to cast the school administration in a bad light.”

“I learned that speaking out about what you believe isn’t hard when you have people backing you up. Speaking up also has its consequences, whether it be people giving you the cold shoulder, maybe even directly confronting you or attempting to embarrass or discredit you through personal attacks,” said Bock.

Dr. Miller also learned a valuable lesson from this experience.

“The basis of many religions, and of our government, is freedom of choice. Do not legislate morality, or allow others to do the same,” said Miller. “Be patient, absolutists will eventually extricate themselves. When that happens, try to make amends.”

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About the Writer
Taylor Hoover, Features Editor

Reading and writing are a big part of the reason senior Taylor Hoover decided to join the Eagle Eye staff team for the first time. She is ready to tackle...

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Containing the Classics: Tyrone High School Endured Campaign Against Classic Novels