This is the next in my series of posts throughout September, in honor of the American Library Association's Banned Books Week, September 22-28.
Up to now in these posts, I've taken a pretty binary approach to the issue of banning or challenging books, and I do feel pretty strongly on the subject, and I won't totally be able to keep my own bias out of today's discussion, I'm sure. However, I recognize that this is not a simple issue, particularly when it comes to classroom reading.
I see two particularly strong battles when it comes to the classroom reading curriculum. There are others, but I think these are the heart of the matter:
1. Parental control vs. education system control.
2. Age appropriateness
This week, I'll write about the first issue.
Parents have an absolute right and responsibility to protect their children. I'm a parent. I take that responsibility seriously. I see issues involved in the raising of my kids as the most important responsibility I have. Those rights and responsibilities do not end when I put my children into a school.
Any time parents put their children into the hands of somebody else, control disputes become inevitable, whether it's a Grandmother or babysitter giving your child candy or a teacher giving your kid To Kill A Mockingbird. On the one hand, the act of putting your kid in school means that you are delegating a part of the responsibility for raising and training your kids to other people and institutions, and that means a loss of a certain amount of the control. Ideas and topics and materials will be introduced by teachers and friends that, if left entirely in your hands, might not be introduced, or might be introduced in completely different ways. There's no getting around that, unless you do as some parents do and opt out of giving up that control. Delegating some of that responsibility does not, however, mean that your own responsibility is lessened, or that your rights to protect your kids no longer apply.
If a parent believes that materials or concepts introduced in school is truly harmful to their child, the parent should act to protect the kid. A large number of challenged books are challenged for exactly that reason.
On the other hand, schools must be able to set their curriculum. and a great deal of thought and consideration goes into the books that are chosen. They might illustrate what life was like in a historical period that is being studied, including the negative things about the society. They might show multiple sides of a political or scientific concept that is being taught. They might show multiple sides of an issue and open up classroom discussions where a problem is looked at from multiple angles. Or, they might simply be an example of excellent writing. Education is about more than figures and dates and names. If those figures, dates, and names don't have context, they are meaningless. At its heart, education is about ideas and learning to process them and to think and to form opinions and to defend your opinions and ideals and to share the world and the workplace with others even if you disagree with them, all important tools for a productive adult. By taking difficult subjects out of the classroom, an important tool is lost.
But, that being said, it still does not trump a parent's right to protect his child from harm. Problems arise, though, when a parent feels the need to extend that protective right to a whole classroom or school district or, in less common cases, to an entire state of children. It becomes even more difficult when other parents want their children to be exposed to those ideas and desire to exercise their own parental rights by protecting their kids from what they perceive to be a narrow view of the world. Many of us agree that a parent has the ultimate say over how their child is trained and has the absolute right to keep their child from harm, but that that right begins and ends with their own child and does not extend to every kid in the class or district. It's a dangerous world, and some parents believe that a child is more safe when the dangers are known and understood than if barriers are put up between the child and dangers than are sure to have to be confronted one day.
So what's the right answer to this problem? I don't know if there is one. That the issues continue to arise shows that it hasn't been solved, and it likely won't be solved. The issue of who has the most control is not going to go away. Ultimate control rests with parents, but parents also need to let educators do their job.
Teachers, who themselves have an ever-decreasing amount of control over what they can teach in their own classrooms due to standardized tests and government-controlled curricula, should provide alternatives for kids who might have trouble with a certain book. That sounds like a simple solution, but it's not simple at all.
By providing an alternative, they are also excluding a child from the important discussions around the book that is being studied by the class. They are singling out a student or group of students, who will probably have to be removed from the classroom during those discussions. The problems with doing that could take up another post, and range from social issues to "why should my kid even be put in that situation in the first place?"
So, although I oppose the removal of controversial books--and, more specifically, the important ideas they contain--from the classroom, I also support the rights and responsibilities that parents have toward their own children.
And this complicates the topic of challenging the reading curriculum.
Ultimately, the discussions around whether a book should be allowed are important. It keeps parents involved, provides an important check and balance on educators, and opens another door for the discussion of difficult subjects with your child.