"Robinson Crusoe" has been thrown overboard by the planners of the Los Angeles Unified School District's Sixth Annual Academic Pentathlon after a teacher complained about racial stereotyping in the literary classic.
In October, the district notified coaches preparing middle-school students for the districtwide academic competition that the Super Quiz would deal with Daniel Defoe's 18th-Century novel about shipwreck and survival. A few weeks later, the coaches were sent a memo saying the book had been withdrawn and replaced by Jules Verne's classic "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." No reason was given for the change.
According to Lorna Round, the district's associate superintendent of instruction, the Defoe book was dropped from the pentathlon after a coach in a predominantly black school objected to "the blatantly racist attitude pervasive throughout the book." Round declined to identify the coach, who is on winter break, without first obtaining his permission.
Round said the coach had objected to passages such as the following description of Friday, the black man who ends Crusoe's decades of isolation: "He was a comely handsome fellow perfectly well made. . . . His hair was long and black, not curled like wool. . . . The color of his skin was not quite black . . . and yet not of an ugly yellow, nauseous tawny as the Brazilians . . . his nose small, not flat like the Negroes."
Round said the staff agreed with the coach's contention that "a book which reinforces negative racial stereotypes should not be the centerpiece of a districtwide competition." Round emphasized that the book had not been pulled from library shelves nor censored in any other way, only dropped from the list of material to be used in the competition. The pentathlon will be held Feb. 25 at Fairfax High School.
"We're not saying 'Don't read it,' " Round said. However, she said she and other staff members felt that, given the uncomplimentary characterization of blacks and other minorities in the book, it needed to be taught carefully. A specific concern, she said, was that the book's treatment of minorities might negatively affect the self-esteem of some minority students.
Address Troublesome Issues
Given the deadline imposed by the competition, she said, "we didn't feel we had time to talk to all the teachers (about ways the book might be constructively taught)."
Round said the district hoped to develop a lesson plan for the book that would address the troublesome issues it raises.
A few coaches called the district to protest the change in books, Round said. Most were distressed because they had already begun working with their students on "Robinson Crusoe."
Both books are recommended for study by middle-school students by the state Department of Education. Janet R. Cole, a state education official, lauded the district for its handling of the matter. "I think it's wonderful that they are sensitive to the community. Both are excellent books. It doesn't matter which one they use."