Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Censorship Of Truth

"Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." - John Adams, Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials, December 1770

There are a broad number of unfortunate facts in the world. There are a wide range of unpleasant things which we would prefer to just not think about. But as a society, we are always better served to deal with the truth instead of hiding our heads in the sand. As a civilization, it is our duty to prepare our children for the world by arming them with facts, even as we provide values and beliefs within which to understand those facts.

We all do our best to shield our children from the unpleasant and the unhappy, but our kids are exposed to it anyhow. On a trip to Richmond, or Washington New York, they are exposed to homelessness, even if they live in a wealthy subdvision. In their own neighborhoods they are exposed to violence, even if parents have done all they can to avoid it. Our kids are part of this world, no matter how we try to shelter them from it. In the long-run, too much shelter can harm them rather than helping them, as the reality of the world is a reality they will grow-up in, live in, work in, and ultimately raise their own families in.

That is why we must strive to explain rather than hide reality when our families are faced with it. And that is also why the censorship of a book in our elementary schools is a grave disservice to our children.
A children's book about penguins was pulled recently from general circulation at Loudoun County elementary Schools.

The award-winning book, "And Tango Makes Three" tells the true story of two male Chinstrap Penguins in New York's Central Park Zoo who raised an egg together. - The Loudoun Times-Mirror


There are many things wrong with this incident in censorship. Let us examine first how the decision to ban the book was made.
A parent at Sugarland Elementary in Sterling raised concerns about the book within the last few months, said Wayde Byard, public information officer for Loudoun County Public Schools.

The parent filed a complaint with the principal, who reviewed the book and deemed it to be appropriate for children. The parent then appealed that decision, and a district-level committee made up of a parent, a teacher, a school librarian and administrators reviewed the book. They ruled it was acceptable for general circulation.

Superintendent Edgar Hatrick III had final say, though, and decided to override that decision. - The Loudoun Times-Mirror
It is wrong for Superintendent Hatrick to substitute his individual judgment over that of the dozens of citizens involved in the decision to retain And Tango Makes Three over a single parent's complaint. No matter how experienced and wise Mr. Hatrick is, no matter that he has been a great leader for Loudoun County's Public Schools through his long tenure, one person should not have the authority to censor a book already vetted, considered and approved. The community had its input, the community reached its decision. The people who made the decision to retain the book were as representative, if not more representative, of the norms and values of Loudoun County as Mr. Hatrick himself.

And if sufficient parents are still angry over the decision, the right place to voice that frustration is before the School Board. The right place to effect change of policy is at the ballot box.

Next, there is the question of the double standard.
David Weintraub, president of Equality Loudoun, a local gay and lesbian rights group, said the parent who made the complaint about the book has not been prevented from expressing his or her beliefs about family. Therefore, he said, why should this person prevent a book from being accessible to others who might have a different idea about family?

"Loudoun County Public Schools serve children from all kinds of families, including families with two moms or two dads," he said in a written statement. "The Administration and School Board need to remember that when confronted with this sort of book challenge. Dr. Hatrick needs to explain why he thought this book was inappropriate for circulation." - The Loudoun Times-Mirror
The censorship of this book represents a chilling double standard. It says that the rights of certain kinds of parents trump the rights of other kinds of parents. It says that children from certain kinds of families will be denied the right to browse their school library and enjoy the delight of a book that seems to speak to them, simply because children from other kinds of families might also find the same book. Intentionally nor not, Superintendent Hatrick's decision places an explicit value judgment on different family lives in a school system dedicated to education of all, equally. It says, in effect, that some are more equal than others.

And finally there is the issue of truth. The book in question was not fiction, it was not a hypothetical example designed to make a point, it was the true story of animals who teamed up to raise a baby at a zoo. The story contains facts told in an entertaining, narrative form. The book stands as an amazing, factual resource for educating small children about the world, using real ideas and themes (family, zoos, animals) elementary students can easily understand, but which can be placed in a larger context by parents.

We cannot shield our children from the truth forever, that way lies disappointment and sadness. We must equip them to deal with it. Books like this are an amazing tool to help parents, and teachers, do so.

I leave you with a comment from the discussion of this issue on the post from Living In LoCo.
I'll share this with you: i was watching the today show while getting ready for work a few years ago, and my 5 yr old son walks in just as they showed 2 men kissing b/c they had just been married in Mass. my son asked "mommy- why are 2 boys kissing on the LIPS?!?!?" i said, some boys were born liking to kiss boys, and some boys are born liking to kiss girls. Now how about some coco puffs for breakfast?"
The world is out there. Our kids are in it. And no book or lack thereof will shield our children from it.

1 comment:

David Weintraub said...

Very, very nicely done.

Intentionally nor not, Superintendent Hatrick's decision places an explicit value judgment on different family lives in a school system dedicated to education of all, equally. It says, in effect, that some are more equal than others.

There are those who will argue that the book's absence represents the absence of a moral viewpoint, a viewpoint which is the parents' role to provide, and is therefore a position of neutrality. They couldn't be further from the truth. There is nothing neutral about erasing and silencing people. The act of not talking about sexual minorities is itself a moral judgment.

Parents in Lexington, Mass. have taken this approach one step further, not only demanding that their children be shielded from seeing certain books, but that they also be isolated from any circumstance in which another child might talk about her own family if she has two dads or two moms.

Tango is a happy story, as is any story where an orphaned child finds a loving family - it hardly represents an "unfortunate fact" by any objective standard. But even those parents who see it that way are in no way, shape or form restricted from teaching their own children what they think about it, nor should they be. They are completely free to tell their child that "there are sometimes two men who raise children together like Roy and Silo, but that it's unnatural and they're going to hell" if that's what they want to do.

I think that what those parents are ultimately afraid of is that their children will end up disagreeing with them.

There is another suspicious/peculiar aspect to the way this was handled, and that is the decision to apply the restriction to all the schools rather than just the one where the complaint was submitted. Normally, there would have to be a separate challenge and review process at each school. We need to find out why that didn't happen. There are links to other resources, including the written policy governing book challenges, at Equality Loudoun's post.