Education Human Rights

Ohio Board of Education President sparks criticism after comments on Toni Morrison book

Debe Terhar, Ohio State Board of Education President, faced criticism this month after she said in a board meeting that she believed Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s book The Bluest Eye should be removed from a list of example texts that could be taught in schools.

The Bluest Eye, published in 1970, focuses on Pecola Breedlove, a black girl who dreams of having blond hair and blue eyes to achieve what she perceives as ‘normalcy.’ She is also raped by her father.

At the board meeting, Terhar said she thought the book was inappropriate and should not be taught to K-12 students.

“There is a text on that list that should not be used in any school in Ohio for any Ohio K-12 child,” Terhar said. “I bought the book, read it myself and I guarantee you, I don’t want my grandchildren reading it and I don’t want anybody else’s kids reading it…It’s inappropriate and for the state board to be even associated with it, I think, it’s the wrong message that we send.”

In response, Terhar received much pushback including from the ACLU Ohio, which wrote in a letter that her comments are “another in a long history of arguments that advocate the banning of African American literature because it is ‘too controversial’ for school children.”

Morrison also spoke out, saying in an interview with NBC4 that although she may have been less surprised to see this reaction to her book in other states, she resented that it got this reaction in Ohio, her home state.

“I resent it. I mean if it’s Texas or North Carolina as it has been in all sorts of states. But to be a girl from Ohio, writing about Ohio having been born in Lorain, Ohio. And actually relating as an Ohio person, to have the Ohio, what- Board of Education? Is ironic at the least,” Morrison said.

In a statement through the Ohio Department of Education, Terhar said she still supports Ohio’s new learning standards and that her comments were her own opinion about the book’s “graphic passages.” She also said in an email that she believes individual districts should be responsible for choosing which books are taught in schools.

“My question to the Board and the Department was, ‘Is it the responsibility of the state to essentially “endorse” materials that are suggested for use in a K-12 environment that are sexually explicit?’ I contend that it is not, it is a decision that must be left to the parents, local board of education, superintendent, administrators and teachers of each district,” Terhar said.

The New Ohio Learning Standards the Board of Education adopted 2010 included in its appendices a list of Suggested Supplemental Reading Materials, where The Bluest Eye was found as an exemplar along with books from Edgar Allan Poe, Charlotte Bronte, and Herman Melville.

Terhar noted that districts can decide to teach books whether or not they are found in the Suggested Supplemental Reading Materials list, and that local education guidelines are determined by the local board of education.

“Bottom line is that this is about local control and the need for the general public to know that they are responsible for implementation of the learning standards at the local level through their local board of education,” Terhar said. “Since we are not a textbook adoption state, the state should play no role in curriculum recommendations such as Suggested Reading Lists. What works for one district is not necessarily right for another.”

About the author

Olivia Miltner

Olivia is the co-director of research and development at The New Political. She is in her fourth year at Ohio University majoring in journalism and war and peace. Olivia has interned at WOSU’s 89.7 NPR News and the Central Ohio American Red Cross. She is from Columbus, Ohio, and she loves animal videos. Previously, Olivia was the editor in chief, the state editor and a state writer. Follow her on Twitter @omiltner.

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