Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Banned Book Week

I’m surprised that so far The Happy Feminist is the only blog I see listed in UUpdate writing about Banned Book Week. IN PRAISE OF BANNED BOOKS
I've always thought Banned Books Week was about politics, not about the principal of free speech. There is no such thing as a "banned" book in America today, unless that book contains photographic child pornography or defense secrets. Save for those two things, no author has been jailed for writing a book, no publisher jailed for printing a book, no book is illegal to possess. Ask Salman Rushdie about real banned books.

What we have instead is a debate about what books are to be carried in specific schools' libraries. Are we to call every book not carried in a grade school library "banned"? If not, then it boils down to the question of who gets to choose which books are stocked. Since most states require by law that children go to school, and most parents cannot afford private schools, then de facto most children are required by law to go to government schools. If, therefore, the parents are not allowed to choose those books through their elected school boards, then what we have is the government denying parents by force of law the right to decide what their child is exposed to- is anyone prepared to argue that the first amendment gives government the right to force parents at gunpoint to have their children read books the parents consider obscene? If not, then why grouse about what books the school boards do decide to stock- or not?

Government should only intervene in the parents’ handling of their children when there is a compelling interest, such as the child’s health and safety. If a loonytune parent were to object to the math book on the grounds that their religion says that 2+2=5, one could argue that the resulting education would be so inadequate as to amount to no education at all, therefore a compelling interest in the child’s welfare. The same argument can of course be made for science books- but once you leave the realm of the objective, that argument goes away. Are we really going to argue that the failure to have read “Heather Has Two Mommies” will so damage a child as to amount to abuse requiring government intervention? Gee, I, and tens of millions of others, managed to grow up into an adult that believes in sexual equality without having read that particular book. I would have no problem with a child of mine reading any of the books on the “banned” list... but that’s *MY* choice. I certainly would not try to force any parent to have them have their child read them, however- that’s *THEIR* choice.

The issue is not whether those books are “banned”, for they are not- every one of them is available at Barnes & Noble, and any parent can buy them for their children if they so desire. The issue is whether the state has the right to indoctrinate children in morals and values against the parents’ wishes... and anyone arguing for that should look at what other countries are doing with that right. If that’s not what you are arguing for, stop throwing around loaded terms such as “banned books”.


Chalicechick said...

My own feelings on this one are complex and I don't know that I could articulate them.

I really don't know where to draw the line.

I do think an education without Huck Finn is missing something. Maybe it's not 2+2=5, but it's something.

And I don't think "Not letting a parent force a library to remove a book" equaates "forcing their kids to read the book" as smoothly as you express it.

At the same time, I do see your point on the rest and have considered it myself.


Joel Monka said...

While it is true that the correlation between keeping the book despite complaints and forcing the child to read it is not direct, A. books are frequently chosen because they will be assigned either directly or on a "read one of these" list, B. its presence in the school library is in fact a state endorsement of the quality of the book- "Mommy, how can it be a bad book if they have it at school?", forcing the child at a tender age to decide who they trust, their teacher or their mommy... and while that may be a valuable exercise in civics at the higher grades, I'm not sure it's something a gradeschooler needs to be worrying about.

Like you, I'm sure exactly where the line should be drawn, but I'm fairly sure it's possible to lead a full and productive life without having read "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings"; therefor I see no compelling reason to overrule the parent's judgement. After all, remember that it's young children we're speaking of- I don't think any parent has ever requested that Harvard remove "Heather Has Two Mommies" from its library.

Bart said...

There's a huge difference between Madonna's Sex and "The Catcher in the Rye" or "The Giver" or "I know why the caged bird sings". Those books are CLASSICS, Madonna's isn't. Parents have no right to request classic books be removed from the school's library. Rather, why not have a discussion with your child about the book? Is it too hard to discuss "Heather has two mommies" with your child? Do you not have enough time to read "The Giver" and then discuss with you child?
Maybe that's the reason so many children don't enjoy reading, their parents try to influence them rather than just let them enjoy a book because it's literature.

Chalicechick said...

"Mommy, how can what the teacher says about Thanksgiving be true if you're telling me they also gave the Indians smallpox-infected blankets?"

Life's complicated. No sense in delaying the kids figuring that one out.

who recalls from a very young age reading novels that glorified war in school, which would have been very much against her parents' beliefs. Didn't do me any harm, unless growing up to be a skeptical UU counts.

Joel Monka said...

Bart- there are lots of classics, and very little class time; the issue is still who decides which classic. "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" is a classic, and taught in schools all over the world, including private schools in the U.S.- do you want your child reading it? Why do you demand that a parent discuss a book they don't want their child reading with that child? Isn't it just as valid to say that a parent who wants their child to read "Heather Has Two Mommies" could give it to their child themselves? Is it too hard for YOU to read the book to YOUR child?

Funny thing- never once have I heard a parent demand their school buy a given book because otherwise their child would never read it; no, they always want to tell some OTHER parent what THEIR child should read.

CC- I, too, read many books that my parents would object to and suffered very little harm for it. Kids can survive real wars as well as books about wars- just because they can, does that mean they must?

Bart said...

Bill Baar says over at Kinsi's blog "I want someone at the library monitoring what my kids read and where they go on the internet."
It's respectable, but one has a responsibility as a parent to do it themselves. My parents always took me to the library and when I was old enough, I went on my own. I could get anything I wanted at the public library.
If I want my child to read a book, I'd suggest they read it. I wouldn't hold a book away from my child depending on the book and my child's age. Enforce your morals on your children yourself. Why should someone else be deprived "Catcher in the Rye" because another person doesn't like it?
But you have to wonder if you saying to your child "Don't read that book. It's bad" is actually telling your child anything, or are you avoiding the truth?
And kids will read what they want to read anyways. In elementary, middle and high school, I read EVERYTHING. There wasn't a book in any of my schools' libraries I hadn't atleast read the back jacket on. If they want to read a book, they will.

Joel Monka said...

Personally, I would let my child read pretty much anything... but that's *MY* choice. I don't tell a parent "You must raise your child the way *I* say!"

You say "Why should someone else be deprived "Catcher in the Rye" because another person doesn't like it?" Don't be disingenuous. NOBODY would be deprived of it. If YOU want YOUR child to read Catcher, then get your child a copy of Catcher. The failure of the school to assign Catcher in class does NOT deprive your child of the chance of reading it. A good parent would be making reading suggestions beyond what the school assigns, anyway!

It's like this: outside of school, the parent controls what the child reads. (supposedly). It's perfectly legal and rational for parents to let their child read anything on that "banned" list. Thus, your parental rights have not been abridged by the failure to assign Catcher. However, if I did not want my child to read it, my parental prerogatives have been abridged if the book is assigned against my will. Therefor, the only solution that respects all sides is to not assign it, and let the interested parent take it up with the child at home.

Jamie Goodwin said...

So you want the people who vote overwhelmingly to amend the state constitution to ban an already illegal act, the same people who again and again shoot down school levies and then go out and buy a 40,000 dollar SUV, the same people who laugh and snort when they teach their 3 year old to say racial slurs to be the ones who choose for everyone which books should be in my childs school?

Joel, I am lots of times right there with ya, but not this time. I just do not believe that in this case the majority would make a good choice.

Joel Monka said...

I understand your position completely, Jamie, and as I agreed with CC I don't know exactly where the line should be drawn, but remember this: the power to indoctrinate a child against the wishes of the parent can be used for bad purposes as well as good. It's a short step from it takes a village to raise a child to the village is GOING to raise your child- hand him over. The wind could change any time... don't assume you'll always agree with those who have the power to overrule the parents.

Caffeinated Librarian said...

Hi Joel, I really enjoyed reading your post. It's always nice to see someone with a different slant on a subject.

As for the "government denying parents by force of law the right to decide what their child is exposed to" - that is simply not the case. Most libraries have systems in place that allow parents to decide which materials they do not want their children to have access to. My mom was a middle school librarian and their school system's policy was that all parents had to do was fill out a brief form stating their name, the book(s)/materials that they wanted their child to be restricted from and that was it.

Most librarians I know believe strongly in the rights of parents to be involved in their child's education and reading. But there is a big difference between deciding you don't want your child to read a book and deciding that no one's child should have access to that book in the school.

My two cents.

Caffeinated Librarian said...

Oh, and another thing -

I'm hearing you say that no books are actually banned in this country because they're available at the local Barnes and Noble, but what about the folks for whom books are a luxury that they can financially ill afford? If a book is removed from a school and from a public library in a community, then for those folks who working hard to make ends meet that book is simply unavailable - period. How is that not a ban in fact, if not in principle?

Bill Baar said...

It's really a job for school and library boards. Where I live, they do a pretty good job of it.

The touchy area today is the internet. It's no longer books.

It's telling too when Mozart can't be played in Berlin for fear of lethal retaliation from Islamic extremists, the we UUs are still fighting a fight from the 50s and 60s which is really not much of a threat to freedom anymore. At least that's my experience in N. Ill where kids are getting at a huge swath of literature (and junk) via the net at school.

Joel Monka said...

Thanks for both your comments, Bill and Caffeinated Librarian!

CL- My concern was not with public libraries, which (at least around here) do segregate adult books from childrens books. My concern was young children in the lower grades- and not every school system is as understanding of parent's concerns as yours; there have been some pretty disheartening displays of school administrators' contempt for complaining parents- that's one of the big reasons for the explosion in home schooling recently.