The decision to choose a Native American memoir by the accomplished author Sherman Alexie for a community-wide reading program was bold and appropriate. Parkites pride themselves on embracing outspoken artists, especially those who highlight civil rights issues, and Alexie has earned a stack of national awards for his groundbreaking poetry, novels and screenplays.
But the decision by the Park City School District to join the Park City Library's One-Book, One Community this year by assigning a book by this controversial writer as required reading for high school students was a mistake. The uproar that is still festering several weeks after Alexie's visit to Park City High School, though overblown, has alienated a small but vocal segment of the district's constituency, has created an unnecessary and unproductive controversy and likely did not accomplish the district's goal of fostering inclusiveness and tolerance.
That is not to say the school district is entirely to blame. A good chunk of the negative impact belongs squarely on Alexie's doorstep. If his intent was to demonstrate the destructive effects of bigotry, he did not gain many (if any) converts. Instead, he enraged the very people he most needed to reach.
While a majority of the families in the Park City School District may not have been offended by Alexie's raw depiction of adolescence in "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" or by his deliberately-abrasive conduct during the workshops he led at the high school, some were. And they had a right to be.
Public schools are meant to serve a wide spectrum of constituents from widely-varying racial, religious and socioeconomic groups. Those who want to shield themselves from differing traditions should seek out private educational institutions.
With that in mind, the Park City School District has a duty to respect those who, for religious or political reasons, want to limit their children's exposure to more radical views. That is not to say the district should condone intolerance, but administrators should realize, and by law are required to, screen sexually explicit material.
In the case of Alexie's book, the district did not adequately warn parents about the nature of the material, nor did they make it clear enough that students could opt out. Furthermore, they allowed Alexie to cross the boundaries of propriety in the classroom -- boundaries that most teachers and all administrators should clearly define.
Dispute the lapse in vetting this particular book, the kids will be fine. With some level-headed discussion, they may even come out ahead when it comes to their next real-life confrontation with bigotry.
It's the parents we are most worried about. The controversy exacerbates an existing rift, one that will make it difficult to regain trust when it comes to other more important issues.
As far as Alexie goes, at some point he might want to ask himself if he wants to be known more as someone who incites antagonism, or as a peacemaker who teaches diverse people to be more accepting of their differences.