Friday, March 06, 2015

Do Not Pass Go; Go Directly to Jail

My first novel was for young adults, After Pa Was Shot, published in 1978 and set in a small East Texas town in the early years of the twentieth century. A teacher friend read it and said, "My superintendent would never allow this in our library if he read it." Me? Pollyanna? It seems it contained the word "kike." The years around the turn of the century were years of immigration, and European immigrants who didn't go to Ellis Island often ended up in Galveston, from where they made their way north to the towns of East Texas. Many were Jewish peddlers and their families. The word passed the classic historical test: appropriate to time and place.
Censorship in education is not new, but it's taken a strange twist these days--jail time. A substitute teacher in Ohio has been sentenced to 90 days in jail for showing an "inappropriate" movie to five classes. Granted it was inappropriate, and it was a bad call to show it without viewing it and then to continue showing it after she knew the content. But jail? Another state is about to pass a law where teachers can go to jail for assigning inappropriate books. The trouble with all this is who decides appropriate vs. inappropriate? Are we imposing someone's personal morality code on our students, narrowing their options for reading? That will cut out classics that they should read. I believe, for instance, that  To Kill a Mockingbird has been on the banned list several times, along with Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, The Color Purple, Beloved, The Lord of the Flies, and 1984. Would you send a teacher to jail for assigning those works? Some right-wingers, guardians of our morality, well might.
Education is in the midst of a controversy right now--should students be taught to the test or should they be encouraged to explore, investigate, question, develop critical thinking skills. Teaching to the test involves memorization, not creativity. Censorship also stifles creativity. The Nazis had a strict censorship program--they wanted people to obey and blindly believe, not to question and think critically. If we are to raise a generation of national and world leaders, we need to teach our students to think critically, to question what they read. If they read something inappropriate, the teacher should discuss it and listen to their questions.
I always remember the sound advice given to parents worried about the moment a child asks a question about s-e-x. Answer the question fully and completely, but don't go any farther. Don't load them down with more information than they asked for. Seems to me the same explanation holds for teaching materials.
But send a teacher to jail? That's going to discourage a lot of college students from entering that profession--a loss to the whole system.

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