Commentary

Public Orthodoxy, Private Dissent

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

On March 2, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a major public-school censorship case typical of hundreds of conflicts over books and beliefs in the nation's schools. The case pits those who long for morality in the school and consensus in the community against those whose concern is independence of thought and freedom of belief for individuals. The Court's decision, which may be imminent, may cast in legal concrete a major misunderstanding of the relationship of schooling and intellectual freedom.

As a controversy never before addressed by the Court, this is the best of cases and the worst of cases. Worst because the decision will be made in ignorance of essential facts and without an analysis of the effect of government control of schools; best because the Island Trees school board's extremist position exposes to public view the unbearable weight nearly all parents and ideological factions have come to place upon public education.

When the Court agreed to review Pico v. Island Trees Union Free School District, it knew that the case had never come to trial. What the Court did not know, however, is that the case had drifted so far from its factual moorings that, by the school board's own admission, Island Trees does not exist. This startling fact can be found in the board's brief to the Court:

"There is no post office address known as Island Trees. There is no Village with its identifying feature of a commons or a Main Street, a Mayor and Village Council and businessmen's clubs. There is no separate fire department or police force. There is only the school system as a source of distinctive identity. ..."

Island Trees, in other words, is nothing but schooling; and schooling in the board's view, is the process by which a political majority devoid of community seeks to reproduce itself.

There are houses, people, and, of course, trees in Island Trees, N.Y.; and they can be glimpsed by the observant traveler heading east by car on Long Island about 40 minutes from Manhattan. Island Trees is part of Levittown. Together they constitute a sprawling example of tract housing created in an earlier generation when the bulldozers leveled everything in sight to make the building of a limited variety of homes easier. Now the trees have grown back and have become taller than the houses in the predominantly white, predominantly middle-class, and predominantly conservative suburb of New York City. Apparently feeling the shifting cultural ground under them, the citizens of Island Trees have adapted the old lessons and efficient techniques of building tract housing to the new task of building minds.

In 1976, the school board declared Bernard Malamud's novel of Jewish life in Russia, The Fixer, to be anti-Semitic and Langston Hughes's collection, Best Short Stories by Negro Writers, to be anti-Negro. Shortly thereafter, a young high-school student named Steven Pico and a few of his friends gained the help of the New York Civil Liberties Union in suing the board to reinstate these and five other books banned from the school's library, curriculum, and classroom discussions. Since then, the case has been dismissed by a federal district court, ordered to trial by a Court of Appeals but never tried, and argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.

According to its brief, the gist of the school board's claim to be free of minority parents' values and from Constitutional principles governing freedom of expression is that the "public school through its curriculum is an instrument of political socialization ..." and that "inculcating and indoctrinating community values" can be accomplished by bulldozing books off shelves and out of classrooms.

"It cannot be denied," the board's brief instructs the Justices of the Supreme Court, "that there is a legitimate and substantial community interest in promoting respect for authority and traditional values, be they social, political, or moral. ..." In taking this position, the Board of Education of Island Trees is expressing its own legitimate fears and those of many other parents that American culture is losing its ability to explain the past and predict the future.

By hearing Pico without the benefit of a trial, the Supreme Court has plunged itself into the middle of a maelstrom of competing ideological forces. All over the country, school boards, teachers, and students are caught in a crossfire of competing visions of how to make America right again. The American Association of Publishers, National Council of Teachers of English, and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report that up to 30 percent of school libraries and more than 20 percent of school districts are involved in book challenges. The predominant pressure to make schools an instrument of the longed-for consensus of values comes from right-wing ideologues, anti-feminists, and religious zealots.

To a lesser extent, the schools are also under attack by groups that wish to preserve children from images and attitudes of sexism, racism, and ethnocentrism. But in general, it is those who prefer faith to rationality, ancient wisdom to modern skepticism, and traditional hierarchies to a disruptive equality of opportunity who have sought to use the schools to inoculate the rising generation against alienation and confusion. The Arkansas creationist trial last December is only the most well-known of these efforts to harness the power of government to an ideological vision.

What the court will know about Pico is a bare outline of events. In 1976, after attending a statewide meeting of a conservative parents' group during which lists of books and excerpts were distributed, two members of the Island Trees Board of Education prevailed upon their colleagues to remove nine books from the high-school library and to ban them from the curriculum.

They were opposed in this effort by the school superintendent, who urged the use of the board's already-established procedure for reviewing challenged books. Included in the list of books labeled "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy" were not only works by Mr. Malamud and Mr. Hughes, but Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Black Boy by Richard Wright, Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas, and The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris.

In response to criticism that there had been no professional or public evaluation of the books and that the entire process was based on out-of-context quotations, out-of-town political agendas, and ex post facto rationalizations, the board reaffirmed its ban and appointed a book-review committee made up of teachers and local parents. In July of 1976, when the committee came back with a report recommending the restoration of five of the books, the board ignored its recommendations, implicitly reaffirming its belief that where it comes to school-board power over book selection and removal, the applicable aphorism was uttered by the Queen of Hearts: "First the sentence, later the trial." The plaintiff high-school students were still trying to get that trial five years later when the Supreme Court agreed to consider the legal issues in the case.

What the Court will not know about the case is substantial. There will be no information about the effect of the banning on teachers and on their ability to do their work with professionalism and responsibility. There will be no facts about the climate of fear that the board's arbitrary and irrational decision-making created among students, teachers, and the community at large. There will be no inquiry into the political agenda that the board might have adopted from its right-wing mentors and sought to advance in Island Trees by the elimination of opposing ideas.

There will be no examination of the literary, social, or pedagogical importance and usefulness of the banned books and no dissection of the "1984" doublethink by which The Fixer becomes anti-Semitic or ignorance becomes strength. There will be no opportunity to find out whether it is possible to ban words and phrases without banning ideas or whether anything but a pall of orthodoxy can result from the elimination of even some dissenting views. There will be no effort to discover whether legitimate motives caused the board to act against the professional judgment of its superintendent and teachers. In short, there will be nothing learned about the political and educational effects of the limitless power claimed by the board.

The board's position is elegant in its simplicity. As long as a board of education can command a majority of voter support, it may manipulate any curriculum and remove any book from its schools in the interests of "political indoctrination" and of transmitting "the consensual values and attitudes of the community [to] students. ..." That some families using the schools involuntarily may not share the beliefs of the social, political, or moral majority is ignored by the board; and it urges the Court to do likewise. That high-school students may be mature enough to understand and make constructive use of classroom analyses of the banned books or may find their intellectual or moral growth stunted by being subjected to shifts in political majorities, is of no concern to the board; and it urges the Court to take the same view.


That teachers are reduced by censorship of their course materials and library resources to the status of bureaucratic agents for literal-minded political factions does not disturb the board; and it has already argued in lower courts that it prefers teaching machines to professional educators.

In the face of this logic of limitless power, the plaintiffs and the ACLU might seem to have an easy task. But as tempting as it is to see Pico and other censorship cases simply as outrageous assaults upon intellect and freedom of belief, there is more here than either the school board or the ACLU can afford to admit.

Censorship cases present an opportunity to address the central contradiction of public schooling--the contradiction between majority control of the content of schooling and individual freedom of intellect and belief. The history of school conflicts reflects public concern that shared beliefs and values are weak and that school socialization is a primary, if not the only effective, means of preventing cultural collapse. Yet in spite of 100 years of conflict over whose values should be established in public schools, there has never been a serious attempt to make intellectual freedom consistent with majority-controlled schooling.

The greatest danger in Pico is not that the Court will be unable to quell the conflict, but that it will rule on the proper relationship between schools and dissidents without acknowledging the contradiction between transmitting community values and preserving intellectual freedom.

The nature of this contradiction is as clear as the Emperor's nudity. Students are a virtually captive audience when parents are not wealthy enough to send them to nonpublic schools. Although some options can be provided within the public school, the economics of mass education and the politics of majority control seem to require that someone make universal decisions about what is to be studied, tested, and built into the hidden curriculum of school structure and discipline.

No matter how much the least common denominator is applied, and sometimes because the least common denominator is so depressingly prevalent, there will always be dissenters. There will always be families and political groups who want children raised differently from their neighbors in this most pervasive and politically accessible of all child-rearing institutions.

Schools cannot be "value neutral"; and few teachers or parents would wish it otherwise. Whenever the perception of cultural confusion increases, as it has recently, so does the pressure to use the public schools to create consensus. The dilemma that this pressure creates was described most succinctly by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1943 when it ruled that the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools was a "confession of belief" that violated the "sphere of intellect and spirit" protected by the First Amendment:

"As governmental pressure toward unity becomes greater, so strife becomes more bitter as to whose unity it shall be. Probably no deeper division of our people could proceed from any provocation than from finding it necessary to choose what doctrine and whose program public educational officials shall compel youth to unite in embracing."

Claiming that literature dealing with the life experiences of minorities or displaying an unorthodox view of history does not exist or cannot be discussed is not the same as requiring a public statement of national loyalty. But the issue in 1982 is the same as it was in 1943. What is to be the role of government schools when the battle for children's minds is constantly with us?

The argument of civil libertarians in Pico is that "the authority of the state and of school boards ... is not unlimited"; but that public-school officials are "expected to promote societal values." This is a second-line defense of freedom. There is no party to the Pico litigation that makes the argument that majority control of public education deeply threatens the First Amendment. There is no case being made that an expansion of family choice in education, through avenues compatible with the goals of racial equality, would help protect public schooling and freedom of expression from becoming casualties of the war over orthodoxy. In the absence of such essential parties and arguments, Pico would be better sent back for a trial about the effects of using schools to promote consensus.

As it stands now, the Court may agree with the Civil Liberties Union that some limits on school-board power must exist lest minority views be plowed down by fear and moralism. But if the Court so rules and in the process legitimizes the premise of majority control of the inculcation of values, of freedom of intellect, and of the beliefs of families, students cannot but continue to be held hostage by local politics.

If, on the other hand, the Court takes the board's position and imposes no limits on majority power, it may safely be predicted that the right-wing moralists--who now seek to cleanse everything, from the halls of Congress to the public airwaves--will step up the campaign to remake the schools in their own image. With options like these, it is hard to see why the Court agreed to hear Pico at all.

Vol. 01, Issue 36, Page 18-19

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login |  Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Commented