Denying the Harmless Pleasures of Reading

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Censorship within a community's schools usually is a tense compromise between the rights of intellectual and academic freedom on one hand and the privileges of the community to educate its children as it sees fit on the other. The danger of overzealous censorship is that students are deprived of valid educational experiences that they should have.

I serve as a parent member of the educational-material review committee in the district in which my children attend school, and I think that one of the complaints we acted on makes this point.

A novel, available in our junior and senior high-school libraries, was challenged by a parent when his son brought it home to read. The parent who complained basically felt that the book wasn't good enough; it lacked literary merit. Although the book admittedly was mediocre, some of us defended it on the simple ground that it was harmless and might be found enjoyable by some of the students.

The arguments against the book were taken up by an elementary-school principal who insisted that a school system was obligated to offer only the best literature by the best authors: that is, the "classics."

Whether the book in question was a class assignment or merely available in the library was irrelevant to this person's argument. The book's mere presence in the library set an example and to retain it would put a stamp of approval on "junk." This view prevailed, and the book was removed.

I believe this begs the questions of what are the various uses of materials in the public schools, what are the proper standards for their selection, and what is the place of reading just for fun.

A school system does indeed limit, organize, and control the material that it presents to its students. It does so in order to meet the goals and objectives that it has for its students. Such a controlled presentation of material is called the curriculum. Although most of us find this acceptable and proper in theory, agreements on acceptable and proper limits and controls often become elusive when it is time to implement them.

Many thoughtful people who insist on the privileges of individuality for themselves often seem ready to deny them to others. It's a question of who is in a position to force whom into a mold. Further, some of these same people seem to believe that the public schools are, or perhaps should be, populated only by the academically oriented, the intellectually gifted, or the economically elite.

If this were true, education would be easy. However, because of recent significant changes in our social structure and in the employment patterns of our economic system, there now are a variety of students who are relatively new to our schools. They are in school, and they are trying to stay in school, because the opportunities for them elsewhere in our society have disappeared.

Once upon a time, a 16-year-old who didn't want to go to school could join the Army, work on the farm or in the factories, or get married. No longer. Now, 16-year-olds who drop out of school are, by and large, out on the streets because there is nowhere else to go. For them, the urge to drop out hasn't changed; just the consequences.

What our current experiment in mass education really means is acknowledging the legitimate variety of students who are attending our schools and expanding our concerns to include them all. If we purge our libraries of all but the "best" books, many of the students will find nothing that they want to read, and so they will go without. My point is that there should be two sets of standards for books in the schools.

Classroom materials, such as textbooks, workbooks, and assigned readings, represent the values and goals that the school system holds for the students. The school system endorses, and promotes as good, everything that the classroom materials contain. Therefore, they should reflect the highest possible standards, and the school system should be prepared to defend them.

On the other hand, a library, by definition, is a wide-ranging collection of materials intended to provide opportunities for the pursuit of diverse individual interests for diverse purposes. There are, of course, minimum standards of acceptability in terms of vulgarity, salaciousness, slander, and distortion. Also the age level and maturity of the students using a particular library has to be taken into account. Beyond that, any book that seems to contribute to an understanding of the human experience or that merely offers an opportunity for harmless pleasure and relaxation belongs in a school library.

It should be accepted and stated as policy that the presence of a book in a school library doesn't mean that the school system endorses it. It only means that the selection is held to be of possible value to somebody. If people don't like a selection, then they don't have to check it out. However, they might find something that they do like, and that's the point.

If the public schools have problems, it's because they're staggering under the social mandate of having to accept all students and of trying to prepare them for the world as it really is, not as we wish it were. The least we can do is make the schools as hospitable a place as we can.

Vol. 01, Issue 29, Page 24

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