Much to the dismay of the average teenager, the Pythagorean theorem and natural selection are required elements of a high-school education. But when it comes to the classics of literature like Brave New World and To Kill a Mockingbird , the lines begin to blur.
Campaigns for wholesale bans on these and other classic works make occasional headlines, but many students are barred from reading such books through a simple request from a parent.
The question of how often this happens, and whether the practice should be allowed, is forcing its way into public debate following a controversy at the country's largest school board, where a formal policy allows students to opt out.
No work of literature is mandatory at Toronto's public schools: Parents can simply ask the principal to excuse their children from reading any book. And no one knows which books are substituted or how often because no one keeps a tally.
No such anonymity attended the battle over Boo Radley that burst out last week.
Line Pinard has received just two complaints in her six years as high-school principal.
The first complaint, near the beginning of her tenure at Malvern Collegiate Institute, was about Russell Banks's Rule of the Bone . It was settled quietly when the parent agreed that the child could read W. O. Mitchell's Who Has Seen the Wind instead.
The second complaint put her under the microscope when reports emerged that the school and the board were considering a ban on To Kill a Mockingbird , by Harper Lee. (Those who jumped to conclusions could perhaps be forgiven - the Pulitzer-Prize-winning classic was removed from the curriculum at a high school in Brampton, Ont., just months ago.) In fact, a parent had merely raised a complaint with Ms. Pinard about the book's language, and had suggested The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill as a suitable alternative for the Grade 10 curriculum.
The parent's child isn't even in Grade 10, Ms. Pinard noted.
That didn't stifle the outcry. Staff lined up outside her office pleading the case for Boo Radley and Calpurnia. Ms. Picard's inbox was flooded with page-long e-mails from parents who had written veritable dissertations on the life lessons contained within the book.
"You can't imagine the hours I've spent on this," Ms. Pinard said.
This week school trustees will be asked to debate the policy anew.
"I think that we're setting a precedent where we're allowing some parents to micromanage a public system that's supposed to be delivering a common curriculum," said trustee Josh Matlow, who plans to appeal the policy at a board meeting on Wednesday.
"My concern here is that I think we're being very politically correct," Mr. Matlow said. "… It's a very interesting discussion: What is the line between intolerance and acceptance, and then the line where we are not supporting our basic values as a progressive society."
But parents and students should question the literature they're asked to read, and their right to object deserves to be protected, said Dianne Fenner, program co-ordinator of English and literacy for the Toronto board.
Earlier this year Margaret Atwood's T he Handmaid's Tale was challenged by a parent, but a TDSB review committee voted to keep the book as part of the high-school curriculum.
Giving parents the right to exclude their children avoids appeals for school-wide or board-wide bans, and amounts to the lesser of two evils, said Franklin Carter, an editor and researcher of the Freedom of Expression Committee of the Book and Periodical Council.
"The school board has to do something. We're never going to get to the point where no one ever complains, so I think that this is the situation that we're stuck with," he said.
There is potential for abuse, but his group has neither the manpower nor the financial resources to keep closer tabs on book censorship in Canada, he said. Mr. Carter works from media reports to keeps track of some of the loudest objections.
Murielle Boudreau, co-chair of the Greater Toronto Catholic Parent Network, said that exposing children to controversial books gives parents an opportunity to discuss important issues at home.
"If it's out there, in my opinion it's better to expose the child and explain whatever it is, rather than not to expose them," she said. "… If you really have objections you should do home schooling."