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The Voice Of Reason

District of Columbia Schools Substitute Harlequin Romance for Hemingway Classic

A clerical error by an education official in the District of Columbia led to the accidental purchase of thousands of copies of a Harlequin romance instead of the Ernest Hemingway classic listed on the high school English syllabus.

"Unfortunately, we do not have time to personally verify whether textbook orders are correct," said D.C. Public School Superintendent Hanseul Kang. "This particular oversight is unfortunate, but not, I like to think, as bad as the media has made it out to be."

The Hemingway book For Whom the Bell Tolls, published in 1940, is loosely based on the author's experiences as a foreign journalist in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. It was hailed as Hemingway's finest work upon its publication, and is still considered by many critics to be his masterpiece. Instead of this hefty tome, the D.C. school district ordered For Whom the Belle Toils, a lightweight romance about an attractive young antebellum woman and the stern, but manly, plantation owner who employs her.

Despite the romance's lurid pink cover and relatively short length compared to the Hemingway book, no complaints were filed by English teachers or students, who used the incorrect book for two school years. The substitution only came to light when the Hemingway Preservation Society approached the Washington Post to complain.

"Yes, Hemingway's spare style and powerful symbolism provide important literary testimony on a key moment in 20th century history, yada yada yada," said a tired-looking David Chalmer, a high school English teacher at Jefferson High School. "But let's face it: these kids aren't here to read. They hate books. At least the racy picture on the cover got them to open the book to see if there were more pictures. Why would I complain?"

It was noted that the switch did not adversely affect the performance of D.C. high school students, which is already poor by national standards. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress tests indicate that the reading proficiency of almost 70% of D.C. students is below "basic" - the worst performance level in the nation.

Since the Washington Post reported on the mix-up last week, there has been a flurry of outrage and solemn affirmations for the importance of America's educational system from a wide range of politicians and pundits. However, the principal reaction seems to be embarassment at the excruciatingly poor performance of the school system right in the nation's capital.

"The drugs, the violence, the failing schools... D.C. does not exactly provide a good backdrop for the leadership of our nation," winced Acting Secretary of Education John King Jr. "It almost makes you wish we could just sort of secede the government buildings from D.C. and form a little independent enclave, like Vatican City in Rome."

Perhaps most surprising is the fact that the D.C. school system has no plans to correct the mistake at present.

"We saved $1.2 million by purchasing those little paperbacks instead of the Hemingway books," admitted Kang. "It almost makes me wonder whether we can make any other textbook substitutions. Do you know if Harlequin publishes any romances about math or science?"


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