Second Thought: Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Literary Villains

A Cleburne group wants “clean” reading for kids but fights dirty.

By Josh Berthume

I grew up in Cleburne, and the news that a group of parents are calling for the removal of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth from the Cleburne High School Honors AP English class was disappointing but not surprising.
Cleburne is conservative and ruled by a Christian social elite similar to those found in many small towns in Texas. Parents’ groups regularly form in protest of various issues, from where the kids hang out on weekends to the t-shirts they design for their extracurricular groups. Veteran educator and language arts department chair Sherri Bell began teaching Pillars in the 1990s. It’s historic fiction that chronicles the construction of a cathedral in 12th-century England, with adult themes and intrigue. Nobles rape, peasants starve and love, people have sex and kill each other. Students are challenged to think critically about choices and consequences.
Concerned Parents and Citizens is the group seeking the ban. Among its ranks are people like Scott Cain, who readily admitted in a Fox 4 News interview that he had only read the excerpts circulated by the group as part of a petition. Cain deemed them wholly inappropriate and, in a separate CBS 11 segment, said that he “… found no literary value in those portions.”
In describing their campaign, group members use practiced bureaucratic language. They are not asking the school to burn books, they say, but only for the pornography to be removed from the required reading list. The word “required” is a sticking point, because Pillars has never been required reading. Bell explains to her students that Pillars contains graphic content and offers them a choice between Follett’s book and Edward Rutherford’s London.
Her decision to teach the book is supported by an official curriculum review handed down more than 10 years ago following an initial challenge: So long as Bell continued to offer an alternative, Pillars was suitable. This prior decision and the offer of alternative reading should neutralize the argument. Once the false idea that students are required to read pornography has been debunked, what objection remains?
That 400 former students — including some raised by ban supporters — organized on Facebook to attend a school board meeting in force and defend the book is telling. That school board president Stu Madison would publicly support the book is amazing. My experience with Cleburne informs me that this principled stand means he is almost certain to lose his next election.
The school board heard both sides on Monday night. Rather than listening respectfully while those who supported the book made their case, the Concerned Parents and Citizens heckled. Grown men and women openly laughed in derision at nervous teenagers and parents of former students as they made reasonable arguments.
Conversely, the speakers in favor of banning the book gave dramatic readings of the most graphic passages. They put air quotes around “professional teacher” in reference to Bell. Their response to the argument that Pillars contains a relatively small amount of questionable content: They baked brownies with bits of manure mixed in and ironically encouraged the school board members to eat them.
People pick fights for a reason. This fight by this group is not unique. It happens dozens of times each year in places that are spread all across America but that share the sharp teeth of the small town. These communities sometimes demand that their citizens choose sides in imagined struggles against evil. Growing up in Cleburne, I saw innocuous issues become emotionally overblown and then transformed into lines in the sand. Your friendships and your business and social standing were at risk if you chose incorrectly.
In this case, friends and neighbors are being judged by their position on the book, and those who do not agree with the ban have had their moral character or Christianity brought into question. The people who tell me that these things are happening don’t want to be quoted by name, but I have every reason to believe them.
This is not a confused and backward minority, but rather a team of slick activists with an agenda and talking points. This is not careful concern for one’s children: Truly concerned parents learn the truth of a thing before acting on it. This is little more than social control through fear by a slow and stupid gang that bellows for attention and longs for an enemy.
Freelance writer Josh Berthume’s work has appeared in numerous publications. He can be reached at Read his other work at

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