Experts Warn of Attempts To Censor Classic Texts
Using California as their example, some educators and civil-libertarians are warning that the growing use of children's literature, rather than traditional basal readers, may make schools more vulnerable to would-be censors.
"There is a connection," said James E. Davis, the former chairman of the commission on censorship of the National Council of Teachers of English. "Basals, in addition to being laundered through controlled vocabulary, were very carefully sanitized. It's one of the things that made them so boring."
By contrast, he said, children's literature includes material that may offend some readers. "In some cases, traditional literature, such as folk tales and fairy tales, have some violent things in them."
Mr. Davis and others report that the issue has become heated in California, where the state board of education in 1987 approved a curriculum framework for language arts that called for "real literature" in beginning-reading programs.
This month, for example, the Re4dondo Beach City School Board rejected a proposal to withdraw the Holt, Rinehart & Winston Impressions reading series, which had come under attack from parents' groups as "morbid" and unfit for children.
At least two other California districts have removed the book from schools, and Robert L. Simonds, president of Citizens for Excellence in Education, a conservative Christian group based in Costa Mesa, said his organization plans to file similar challenges in "over 100 districts" in the state.
Such challenges stem directly from California's language-arts policy, said Michael Hudson, Western director of People for the American Way, a civil-liberties organization.
Publishers responding to the framework "are including a broad range of literature, and a wide range of ideas, and they are coming under attack," he said.
But Glen Thomas, director of the state education department's office of curriculum framework and textbook development, noted that incidents have been relatively rare. He added that state officials "feel strongly" about their literature program, which he said has led to better materials.
Mr. Thomas also pointed out that the incidents that have occurred have enhanced community involvement in curricular policy, and have bolstered support for the literature-based reading program.
"Yes, there have been more challenges and more concerns," he said. "But on the other hand, these have provided an opportunity to involve parents. A lot of hopeful things have happened."
'No Redeeming Value'?
The Impressions series, which contains selections by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Lewis Carroll, and C.S. Lewis, among other authors, was one of 17 programs adopted for use statewide by the California board in 1988.
Although the language-arts adoption was hotly contested, Mr. Thomas said state officials received no complaints about the Holt series.
"We weren't aware of what was in the books," Mr. Simonds said of his group's lack of involvement during the adoption process. "We hadn't done an evaluation."
But the cee launched challenges in local districts, he added, when parents began to complain that their children suffered from "nightmares" after reading the books.
"The whole series is one of morbidity," Mr. Simonds said. "It has no redeeming value for children."
Thomas A. Williamson, director of the school department of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., which owns Holt, said the firm has also produced a new edition of the series. But, he added, "we are making both editions available. Schools can select one or the other."
Unlike the past, when publishers might have kept such material out of textbooks for fear of offending a potential customer, the new literature policy encourages the use ofclassic texts, Mr. Thomas said.
Moreover, he noted, such literature is exempt from California regulations governing the "social content" of classroom materials. These policies prohibit depictions of overt racism and sexism, and ensure that religion is respected, he said.
"In our view, classic literature has to be viewed differently," said the California education official. Content that 20th-century Americans may regard as offensive, he explained, "may reflect the historical context of the time" the book was written.
Mr. Thomas added that districts can "protect" their literature curriculum by having in place procedures that ensure that the materials selected are educationally sound.
The Redondo Beach school board, he noted, had a model policy that included notifying more than 4,000 parents that the materials being considered for adoption would be on display. It also ensured that "parents having a different point of view [could] have their day in court," he said.
Mr. Hudson added that People for the American Way is making available to other districts a videotape of the Redondo Beach board's hearing on the Impressions series.
"It shows how a community can stand up to pressure," he said.