Commentary

High Stakes in Matters Of Censorship, Morality, And Educational Values

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Censorship is the hottest issue to hit the schools this year. Spirited debates about the sanitizing of school plays, the selection of library books, and the adoption of class reading lists are rebounding from the Virginia Tidelands to the Seattle suburbs.

The central protagonists in this fight tend to present rather narrow arguments. One side proclaims, "Save all the books;" the other side insists, "Protect our innocent children." Somewhere in between lies a more rational position, one that educators can defend.

Academic freedom certainly plays an important part in our educational system. But attention to ethics and morality enjoys a long tradition in schools as well. Despite the apprehension of many educators about teaching morality, the belief that moral values should be taught goes back to our national origins. Thomas Jefferson fervently hoped that education would fortify the citizens of the new Republic with "moral honesty." This idea of education persists. The most recent Gallup Poll on education reports that 84 percent of the parents of public-school children favor instruction in morals and moral behavior.

Confronting the public schools is not the question of whether to teach morality, but the problem of how. They need to find a middle ground between denying sectarian religious instruction on the one hand and avoiding complete moral relativism on the other. This middle ground varies considerably from community to community, of course, but parents will always resent schools that undermine the system of values taught at home. No school should deliberately destroy those values.

Concerns about academic freedom enter at this point. Such freedom, along with ethics and morality, is a part of our system of education. However, no right of absolute academic freedom exists in the public schools. States set graduation requirements and approve certain textbooks for adoption. School districts establish programs of study--with prescribed scope and sequence and reading materials--upon the approval of the school board. Academic choice, in fact, may be narrowed at every stop along the line from the state textbook commission to the local department chairman.

Some educators argue that books and lesson plans are matters to be determined solely by professional judgment. Although parents ordinarily accept this position in the case of mathematics, they are far less willing to accept it where literature or drama is concerned. And if society willingly accepts "R" ratings for films, thus restricting the viewing of them by young people, how can we scream "censorship" when similar criteria are applied to school books? Most citizens simply do not accept the infallibility of teachers on matters of morality or values.

That there is reason for this is substantiated by a recent Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance study about American values in the 1980's. The study reports that educators' views on certain moral issues are significantly different from those of the "general public." For example, the Connecticut Mutual survey found that only 62 percent of educators opposed adultery, while 85 percent of the general public said it was wrong. Fewer than half of the educators--45 percent--said that having sexual relations before age 16 was wrong, while 71 percent of the general public believed it was wrong. Although 30 percent of the educators polled said using marijuana was bad, 57 percent of the general public objected to its use. Similar differences were reported on other "values questions."

Obviously, a serious "values gap" exists, at least in many communities. Parents and teachers must acknowledge these possible differences in viewpoint and work them out. Parents as well as English teachers have rights. What is considered "acceptable" by a Mormon town in Utah may be quite different from what is tolerated in a Jewish suburb of New York City. Similarly, the solid Baptists of South Carolina probably possess a view of morality not entirely shared by the nominal Protestants of Palo Alto, Calif.

Certainly it is consistent with good educational practice to review educational materials periodically, including magazines and books in the school library. Unless you believe that books, once shelved, have thereby gained an irrevocable tenure, such actions do not constitute censorship despite the protestations of some librarians and the American Civil Liberties Union. It is reasonable educational policy to protect the legitimate interests of all who are concerned about the development of young men and women.

Reviews of books and materials also recognize the long tradition of moral education in schools, as well as a rational approach to finding a compromise between what a teacher may view as educationally valuable and what a citizen may view as destructive of family values. Both are protected rights, but neither is an absolute right. The issues are negotiable. Little is gained by waving the red flag of censorship.

Does all this mean that school officials should remove books or ban plays following every citizen complaint? Absolutely not! Parents should no more have the right to a unilateral and uncontested veto than has a teacher or librarian the right to a unilateral and uncontested selection of any available book or magazine for students.

Fortunately a way out of the dilemma exists. Fortunately, also, the way out does not involve the courts, because already their intrusion upon the curriculum is excessive.

Every school board should establish formal procedures for reviewing controversial materials. A standing committee of educators and laymen, appointed by the board and working together, can be invaluable to a community. This committee should operate within a materials-selection policy established by the board of education, which specifies the local criteria to be applied and the procedures for selecting materials for the school library, for courses of study, and for extracurricular activities such as dramatic productions. The policy should provide procedures for reviewing challenged materials as well. This approach has been recommended by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and the American Library Association, among other education groups.

Far too many communities fail to maintain appropriate policies and procedures on these issues. Where a void exists, interested citizens and educators should initiate their development in conjunction with the school board. Such steps must be taken to prevent a flurry of demands from any single source that could damage the legitimate interests of all concerned.

Shooting from the hip at the last minute is no way to respond in today's hot climate. We are now approaching "High Noon" on the issues of morality and censorship, and the educational stakes are very large, indeed. The public deserves responsible action by the schools on this critical issue.

Vol. 01, Issue 34, Page 24

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