Jul 29, 2014

School District Did Right by 'Nickel and Dimed'

Lower Saucon resident had urged Easton to remove the book from its high school curriculum.

School District Did Right by 'Nickel and Dimed'

(Editor's Note: Davis has recently contacted the Southern Lehigh School administration about this same issue. The complaint is currently under review)

In 2010, a Lower Saucon Township resident tried to make the case that the Easton Area High School curriculum shouldn’t include the book “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.”  

In the book, author Barbara Ehrenreich writes about taking a series of low-wage jobs in Florida, Maine and Minnesota to see if she could live on what she earned. Eric Adams complained to Easton Area’s school board that the book promotes socialist ideas and drug use while belittling Christians. 

A committee of Easton teachers and administrators reviewed his complaint and decided the book was appropriate, according to the Express-Times.

In a recent letter to The Morning Call, Adams was back arguing against “Nickel and Dimed” and that school boards should be monitoring textbooks closely to make sure the curriculum doesn’t “deviate too far from the core values of the community.” 

Certainly, school board members are entitled to weigh in if they think a particular book used in classes is a poor choice. But unless you have third-graders reading “Mein Kampf,”  boards should be reluctant to start pulling books every time someone objects to content. Plenty of great literature has been banned or challenged in schools at one time or another. 

As for “Nickel and Dimed,” anyone who has held the low-wage jobs Ehrenreich took knows that much of her reporting rings true.  

In my teens and twenties I waitressed in several restaurants in Maryland, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., and the memories of my aching shoulders, back and feet are with me still. Ehrenreich captured the petty indignities, condescending customers and autocratic managers well.  She writes: “Managers can sit -- for hours at a time if they want – but it’s their job to see that no one else ever does…When, on a particularly dead afternoon, Stu finds me glancing at a USA Today a customer has left behind, he assigns me to vacuum the entire floor with the broken vacuum cleaner which has a handle only two feet long, and the only way to do that without incurring orthopedic damage is to proceed from spot to spot on your knees.” 

Ehrenreich shows how circumstances – cars that break down often, poor health and nutrition -- often conspire to sabotage the low-wage workers’ chances to get ahead. She gives an eloquent valedictory of sorts for living wages for the co-workers she left behind:   

“When someone works for less pay than she can live on – when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently – then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The ‘working poor’ as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society.” 

In Adams’ letter to the editor in support of removing such books from the curriculum, he says that school directors “seem to like having controversial books in the classrooms...” 

One can only hope so. 

The remedy to controversy over books is not to remove them but to teach more of them. Follow up “Nickel and Dimed” with “Atlas Shrugged” -- Ayn Rand’s ode to unfettered capitalism, or George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” which is as effective an argument against communism as any I’ve read.  

Controversial books should start discussions – not be the last word on them.  Perhaps Steve Furst, Easton’s director of teaching and learning, said it best when he defended the use of “Nickel and Dimed:”

"We read books like this to spark debate, get kids thinking about what they actually believe in, and stand up and defend it. That's really what this is about, trying to reinforce our democratic principles."

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