Skimming for the Dirty Parts – Book Censorship In Public Schools, The Enders Game Controversy, and The False Allure of Public Decency

While it is true that I stole both Brave New World and Flowers for Algernon from the public library, it should be noted for the record that I did eventually return them. Plus, it was all Newsweek’s fault anyway.

I was thirteen, and my parents had only just started subscribing to Newsweek. The magazine itself was a curiosity, if only because my parents weren’t “subscribe to magazines” kind of people. Our bathrooms all had several very old copies of Readers Digest that I had read over and over in two-to-five minute increments, and so for the novelty alone I would have been grateful for the addition of Newsweek to the family chamber pot library. Gratitude turned to something far more primal, however, when maybe the fifth or sixth issue we received had a cover story on sex in the media.

The article dealt mostly with public uproar over two brand new TV shows, both on ABC. One of the shows was a sitcom about a single man living in the same apartment as two single women, one of which wore tight shirts and often showed cleavage. The relationships between the characters was purely plutonic, but they still lived under the same roof and back then such a concept was salacious indeed. The show other was a prime-time mock-soap opera played for laughs, and along with all the normal bed-hopping that was considered standard fair for daytime TV had the audacity to feature a male character that was gay. (But gay in a “TV Gay” kind of way, which meant that he would occasionally declare “I’m gay!,” but was never seen dating, kissing, holding hands, or in any way pursuing other men.) As ABC was already on it’s second season of Charlie’s Angles, it was pretty clear that the network was in Satan’s pocket.

For a thirteen year old boy, there was much to appreciate in the Newsweek article. The whole thing was quite long, and managed to walk that still-existent media tightrope of looking down its nose at all of this “jiggle-tainment” while still featuring tons of pictures of Suzanne Somers, Farah Fawcett and Jaclyns Smith and Bisset wearing very little clothing. But it also quoted concerned men discussing things such as books that were nothing but explicit smut that one could find in public libraries. Two of these were books I saw all the time in my neighborhood library, but had never had a desire to read – until I read the Newsweek article. They were Brave New World and Flowers for Algernon. That weekend I went to our library, and – afraid of bringing pornography to the nice checkout lady – snuck them out amidst a stack of books that I had checked out. I read them both by the end of the weekend.

As anyone who has read either book knows, each was a pretty major disappointment in the primal urges category. The “smut” I had been warned about was not the graphic depictions of sexual carnage I had been seeking, but instead the mere acknowledgment that sex existed and that people liked having it. But I loved each book nonetheless. I was a quarter way through Flowers for Algernon before I realized that I had already seen the movie, a Cliff Robertson vehicle renamed Charley for the big screen. And though I was already a science fiction fan, Brave New World was my first foray into the dystopia sub-genre that I now so love. Huxley’s book quickly led me to Animal Farm, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and The Lathe of Heaven – all of which I read in the following six months.

The great irony, of course, is that the self-appointed protectors public morality’s attempts to ensure I never read authors like Huxley actively ensured that I did.

The great tragedy, of course, is that they might well have succeeded – and probably did with others.

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After a week of sorting through jumbled stories, it appears that the Enders Game controversy in Schofield, South Carolina is finally drawing to close. Police are declining to press criminal charges against the teacher that read Orson Scott Card’s Enders Game, Agatha Christie’s Curtain, and Victoria McKernan’s The Devil’s Paintbox. It is not clear which of these books was designated “pornography” by the complainant, but that is somewhat irrelevant since none of them are remotely so.

The breathless reports by local TV news station WRDW that the teacher was downloading internet pornography and reading about men ejaculating in women’s faces are now notable for two reasons: The first being that they appear to be both entirely made up and never verified, and the second being that it acts as yet another data point to support my hypothesis that the very worst abuses of sensational yet unserious journalism are perpetrated by local-channel American TV news teams.

The suspended teacher faces some degree of internal punishment for not following district rules, which say that any materials – be they books, news stories, articles, essays, or whatnot, must go through bureaucratic channels of approval before students are exposed to them.

And therein lies the real crime.

When all is said and done, this will be a story where the big cultural and political takeaways are either going to be that some hick rube thought Enders Game was pornography, or that some secular teacher talking to children about spraying semen on a woman’s face got to keep his government job. The school policy that resulted in the actual suspension will be a wonky subtext to the more sensational story lines. And that’s a shame, because that’s where our focus should be.

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I am a parent, and as such there are certainly things I think are not appropriate for school. For example, having a teacher talk about ejaculating onto a woman’s face strikes me as being more of a indicator of mental health issues than it does providing a learning opportunity for my boys. But I’m not sure that such transgressions are common enough to justify the bureaucratic policies Schofield (and from what I gather, most other districts) have in place. Indeed, I suspect that if you hire a teacher that believes such discussion is appropriate, you’ve also gotten yourself a teacher that won’t pay much attention to the rules thrown into the bargain. Administrative rules of this sort should be guidelines that help normal day to day classes work as well as possible, not an excuse for extreme cowering.

Besides, at the end of the day the Schofiled policy isn’t one that’s being used to keep hardcore pornography out of the classroom. It’s a one that’s being used to keep Enders Game out. In other schools around the country, these types of administrative rules are being used to ensure that 1984, Huck Finn, The Great Gatsby, Harry Potter and countless other books out of the hands of children and young adults.

The story that we are sold is that there are guidelines of public decency that we want to make sure we maintain. And as an argument, it’s hard to object; after all, who among us can object to public decency, especially where children are concerned? The problem is that although the Siren’s call of public decency is attractive, it is a ruse. Because with all of these controversies what’s being suppressed isn’t harmful smut – it’s just ideas that people dislike.

As I noted above, where Brave New World is banned, it isn’t banned because it’s sexually explicit. It’s banned Skimming for the Dirty Parts - Book Censorship In Public Schools, The Enders Game Controversy, and The False Allure of Public Decencybecause it acknowledges that sexual pleasure exists. Texas didn’t challenge children having access to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings because it’s unwholesome – they challenged it because it looks at white people from a black person’s perspective and finds the supposed superiority lacking. To Kill A Mockingbird was objected to in multiple states for similar reasons. And Texas likewise didn’t try to keep Lord of the Flies out of schools because it was in any way salacious. It did so because it’s ideas about the nature men, where evil is born, and divine inspiration were not in alignment with those elected to public office. Florida schools didn’t challenge 1984 because it was too risqué. They did so because they inexplicably believed it would encourage sympathy with people living in communist countries. Harry Potter and The Shining are each frequent targets, for no other reason than they tell stories that presume a place where magic exists that is not explicitly granted by Christ. When Shel Silverstein’s children’s poetry books have been challenged, it has never been because they are in any way violent or sexual – it is challenged because they are seen as anti-authoritarian.

That I could go on… and on… and on… is a sad statement about these kinds of administrative rules. For those that argue their necessity, I ask you to briefly imagine a world where they don’t exist:

Your middle school student arrives at school and takes her seat. Her teacher has been reading from Fahrenheit 451.  Today he pulls out a news article from today’s paper about the Schofield Enders Game controversy, and uses it to lead the class in a discussion, asking the kids to consider in what ways the news article is like the events of the book, and in what ways it isn’t. Later one of the students that obviously doesn’t read his homework assignments mentions a love of baseball, and the teacher pulls from his shelf a copy of Jackie Robinson’s autobiography, and reads a passage that sparks some obvious interest in the boy. It might be a good book for him to read in the new book report project everyone’s about to do. A few other kids ask for a recommendation, and the teacher prints out a list from the internet of Newberry Award Winners from the past 10 years and posts it on the wall for kids to look over. Later, the teacher pulls out a magazine article he came across about some kids that formed their own skateboard decal company, and reads it to the class. In none of the above did the teacher feel the need to hold off sharing any of the above with the class, despite the fact that he did not have explicit permission from the district to do so.

Wouldn’t that count as a good thing?

There needs to be some rules, of course, so that in the unlikely event of a teacher downloading hardcore porn to show the classroom you have a legally permissible option to deal with that person. But allowing for rules that allow for necessary corrections, I see this as a far superior system. Some might argue that some parents might complain about materials chosen by a teacher with this setup, but I’ve been to enough school board meetings to know that no matter what set of approved texts you come up with, parents are going to complain.

As I have discussed before, one of the problems I have with those that complain that public schools are indoctrinating children is that they invariably come from the people that most strongly believe the primary role of schools is to indoctrinate children. The best way to make sure that kids grow up into critical thinkers that aren’t suckers waiting for the first sheep shearer to roll into town is to expose them to different ideas and let them think about those ideas for themselves.

Besides, it’s folly to think that if you can just keep a particular book title from being available to a kid in the classroom he or she will be shielded from whatever you think they need to be shielded from. Trust me on this.  I learned a lot of dirty and smutty things in middle school; I didn’t learn any of them in the class room.

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33 thoughts on “Skimming for the Dirty Parts – Book Censorship In Public Schools, The Enders Game Controversy, and The False Allure of Public Decency

  1. Don’t have much to add, but I really liked this post, and agree.

    My parents, who were way liberal (probably too liberal) on letting me see and read sophisticated stuff at a very young age, only ever forbade one movie. Blue Velvet. Guess how long it was before I got my hands on it!

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  2. “The great irony, of course, is that the self-appointed protectors public morality’s attempts to ensure I never read authors like Huxley actively ensured that I did.”

    Have you ever seen The Fantasticks?

    If I wanted to make sure that kids didn’t read books, the *FIRST* thing I’d do is put them behind glass and hide the key to the cabinet.

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  3. Very interesting stuff here.

    A disclaimer: I work in an independent school that does not have the same types of policies described here.  Which is not to say that we have no policy or that independent schools are de facto policy free.  However, generally speaking, independent schools are less likely to have policies and, when they do, they are generally easier to navigate, if only because of the size of the schools/bureaucracies involved.  (None of this is intended to say that independent schools are better, only different… for some reasons, the entirety of this disclaimer seems necessary when wading into conversations about schooling from the independent end of the spectrum).
    ANYWAY, my school has no policy.  At least if it does, I’ve never been informed of it.  In much the same way we have been given autonomy across a variety of decisions, we are trusted to use our best judgement, to ask permission when we are certain, to ask forgiveness when we err, to be prepared to delicately defend our positions when challenged, and to try to head off storms whenever possible by taking preemptive steps.  As I said on the other thread, something that goes a long way to alleviating such situations is close relationships between teachers and parents.  Not only does this allow opportunities for preemptive steps (e.g., my daily emails allow me to give a heads up about any potential controversial work coming up and allows for dialogue before, not after), but parents are more likely to deal one-on-one with teachers if there is an established, working, collaborative relationship.  This is far from a panacea… all it takes is one parent to cause a firestorm.  But it helps.  A ton.

    To your point about indoctrination in schools… schools are SUPPOSED to indoctrinate.  We want them to!  We need them to! The question becomes, what should they indoctrinate?  John Dewey, the father of progressive education, made this point very clearly (which is interesting giving that the bastardization of modern progressive ed is one of the biggest proponents against “indoctrination) when he said (paraphrased): Do you think it is just by chance that American students tend to embrace democracy and Russian students tend to embrace communism?  Of course not!  American schools teach democratic ideals and they ought to!  And Russian schools do (or did) teach (taught) communist ideals and they ought to (have)!  Of course, there is a big difference between teaching and promoting the ideals of democracy in the context of a conversation about other  perspectives of governance and teaching that democracy is the one and only way.  But even that presumes critical thinking and open-mindedness, itself a choice to value which we might take for granted (but, trust me, there are plenty of folks right here in suburban NY who think that such things are silly for kids to learn).  So, yes, schools should indoctrinate, but they should be careful about what they choose to and choices should be made mindful of the knowledge of best practice, the demands of the community (micro, macro, and in between), and the needs of students.  To claim that you are not indoctrinating is simply to be indoctrinating something less explicit.

    Sorry this was so disjointed… such are the ramblings of a teacher on day 11 of a 16 day spring break.

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  4. Two thoughts:

    I was involved in a story that ran on the evening news for about a week. Every local TV newscast got the facts straight a lot better than the newspaper.
    I had always thought it was the other way around. I lost a lot of respect for the paper after that.

    I don’t trust teachers enough to let them get past without a tight line to walk. I’ve known too many of them, and some of them are pretty screwed up people. Honestly though, most of the ones I know or knew taught at the college level. I think most of them are ok; just a few jackasses about.
    It’s because of the horrible ones that the good ones have some elaborate procedure to follow. But I think we would be better off to recognize that attentiveness to procedure isn’t what makes a good teacher good.

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    • “It’s because of the horrible ones that the good ones have some elaborate procedure to follow. But I think we would be better off to recognize that attentiveness to procedure isn’t what makes a good teacher good.”

      I’ve long argued that any true education/teacher reform movement needs to come from within the body of teachers. The good teachers need to stand up and demand to be shaken loose of the shackles that the bad teachers themselves are. I used to be bothered by the lack of respect for teachers. While there still is a tendency to engage in hyperbole and scapegoat them, I realized the unfortunate truth that much of the skepticism, mistrust, and criticism is deserved, considering the lot of us on the whole. This may be true in other fields but seems particularly true in teaching. Rhee, for all her many flaws and failed executions, realized this and attempted to enact some change in DC before (rightfully, probably) being chased out.

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  5. Was I the only one for whom I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings seems not to belong on that list? My (very liberal) mother prohibited me from reading it for a very long time, not because of what it says about race but because of the relative prominence of the rape scene. Far be it from me to say that Texas schools aren’t racist, but unlike the rest of the books on the list there’s a legitimate argument that the sexual content makes it a risky book in a way that isn’t true of the sexual content in, say, 1984.

    If you’re arguing that schools ought to be comfortable confronting rape-as-symbolism, that’s one thing. But I don’t know that it’s fair to assess intent.

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  6. A fine post here, Tod.  I taught middle school and high school English for a few years. Never got in trouble with the administration for the books I chose, but I did have one parent corner me and complain that her son had learned about rape from A Tale of Two Cities, which I had assigned.  He hadn’t, of course.  The student learned of the word in Latin class, spotting the title The Rape of Lucretia in his textbook.

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    • I learned about rape from the Hades/Persephone/Ceres myth when I was in 8th grade.
      I sort of took it for granted that marriage was the proper thing to do after having raped someone.
      A valid form of courtship for the Olympians.
      Frankly, I was a lot more interested in Apollo.
      He was the cool one.

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  7. Brave New World was my first foray into the dystopia sub-genre that I now so love.

    And The Hunger Games opens at midnight tonight at your local theater!  (Number 1 daughter and I are waiting until after school tomorrow, although she would like to go at midnight.)

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  8. My parents let me read some books that I’d describe as kinda pornographic… when i was 8 or so. Not that they knew what I was reading (they had bought them for me from a children’s library)

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  9. My mother handed me “Catcher in the Rye” when I was eleven. And “Cyrano.” The closest thing I can remember to difficulty or trauma in reading stuff that might have been too mature for me was at the age of 9 when “Huckleberry Finn” confused the hell out of me with a simple syllogism:

    1. Slavery is evil.

    2. Abolitionists hate slavery.

    3. Huckleberry hates abolitionists.

    WTF?

    Long conversations with the parental unit to iron that one out.

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