Destroying the murals at Glencoe Elementary: An assault on reason.


The student-produced mural at Glencoe Elementary School

The fact that so much art has been defaced and destroyed over time is evidence of its deep significance, argues David Freedberg, an art history professor at Columbia University.

The principal and staff of Portland’s Glencoe Elementary School should have thought about this before deciding to paint over and remove murals painted on the school’s walls by hundreds of 5th graders every year since 1984.

“We look at this as trauma-informed professionals and through an equity lens,” 13 members of Glencoe’s staff wrote in a Dec. 19 letter to Willamette Week trying to justify the decision.

“Many of the images are upsetting and problematic,” Glencoe’s staff wrote in their letter.  “The decision to cover them was a relief to many.”

I’m sure it was.

God knows, school administrators and teachers don’t want to raise difficult questions, expose children to different values, stimulate their intellect, give children opportunities to question established truths.

And schools certainly don’t want to expose children to deep moral issues.

Like slavery.

“…there are some images that are not relevant to our students or ones we want to represent our Glencoe community (such as) Tom Sawyer paddling a slave on a raft,“ Glencoe’s principal, Lori Clark, wrote in the school’s Oct. 19, 2018 online newsletter.



The portion of the Glencoe mural showing Huck Finn and the slave, Jim, on a raft.

(Aside from the fact Clark doesn’t seem to know it is Huck Finn, not Tom Sawyer, on the raft), God knows you don’t want elementary schools to acknowledge that slavery was a stain on America’s history. Or, for that matter, that Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of America’s greatest novels, tells a story of a rebellious boy and a runaway slave seeking liberation upon the waters of the Mississippi.

The Glencoe affair reminds me of efforts by misguided people to ban books that are unorthodox or defy social norms.

Schools have banned Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner because it includes sexual violence and was thought to “lead to terrorism” and “promote Islam.”

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, an American classic, has been banned in schools because of violence and its use of the N-word.

Even books in the Harry Potter series have been banned for promoting magic.

“Original writing often pushes boundaries in topic, theme, plot, and structure,” says Regan McMahon, a children’s book reviewer. “Exploring complex topics like sexuality, violence, substance abuse, suicide, and racism through well-drawn characters lets kids contemplate morality and vast aspects of the human condition, build empathy for people unlike themselves, and possibly discover a mirror of their own experience. “

Art, including art created by children from their own experiences, can do the same.

The job of teachers is to illuminate history, provide context and encourage children to seek and express ideas, not to see all issues through an “equity lens” and shield children from difficult truths about America’s past.


NOTE: In a Dec. 14, 2018 online letter to the parents of Glencoe Elementary children, Principal Lori Clark said: “PPS is rescheduling the project to paint over the murals. One of the artists has granted us permission to paint over the murals with which he assisted. The other artist has retained an attorney regarding the mural projects he facilitated. At this point, the district’s legal counsel will be working with the artist to determine next steps.” Three removable mural panels were auctioned off at a school Open House on December 6, 2018.


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