Law & Courts Opinion

Building Bridges Instead of Walls: An Anti-Censorship Effort That Worked

By Michelle Marder Kamhi — September 29, 1982 6 min read
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That view is confirmed by other reports in the state. One teacher responding to a survey conducted last year by the Ohio Council of Teachers of Language Arts wrote: “Literature of a controversial nature is not taught.” Another respondent noted: “We are told not to use questionable materials that might cause community unrest.”

Yet one of the teachers at the southeastern Ohio meeting could report that, to his knowledge, his English department had experienced no such pressures at all in the past year, not one challenge to the wide variety of materials being used in its junior and senior high-school classes. The teacher was Jim Creighton, acting head of the English department at Fort Frye High School in Beverly, Ohio.

The Fort Frye Consolidated School District serves a large rural area on the western edge of Appalachia. As tradition-bound an area as one could find anywhere in the United States, it is comparable in many respects to Kanawha County, W.Va. (in 1974 the scene of violent communal strife over school book banning), which lies only a hundred miles to the south. A place where “people try so hard to keep things the way they were” is how one local resident describes the community centering on Beverly, Ohio.

Nevertheless, Fort Frye’s English curriculum and book shelves contain many of the titles that have been the source of controversy in other schools: A Day No Pigs Would Die, Lord of the Flies, The Diary of Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Hiroshima, among others.

That Fort Frye has escaped the sort of educational and community havoc that afflicted Kanawha County and comparable school districts is due largely to the intelligent, sensitive efforts of its teachers.

Fort Frye, too, has had its would-be censors. Not many years back, some moves were made to dismiss Mr. Creighton’s predecessor, June Berkley, because she taught from the “communist rag,” the New York Times Student Weekly. Only five years ago, a group of parents began agitating to have Robert Newton Peck’s A Day No Pig Would Die removed from the curriculum. Describing in very graphic detail a young boy’s coming of age on a Vermont farm, Peck’s autobiographical novel was regarded by the parents as a “dirty” book.

But Fort Frye’s curriculum remains intact--because, when parents moved to limit it, the teachers neither capitulated to their demands nor escalated the conflict. They did not surrender the challenged book, whose value they firmly believed in. They did not barricade themselves behind professional prerogatives, claims to academic freedom, and First Amendment rights. Such claims, however just, would have polarized the situation further, possibly leading to open war. Instead, the teachers built bridges to the community. They met the parents on neutral, noncombative ground. On their own time, with no pay, Fort Frye’s teachers set up a series of evening classes, which they called “Books Our Children Read.”

The title is significant: Children, as it implies, are our shared responsibility. Parents and other members of the community were invited to attend the classes, to read and discuss some of the controversial books in the curriculum, and to discover, at first hand, how and why literature was taught at Fort Frye. (These efforts are eloquently described by June Berkley in an essay in the National Council of Teachers of English volume Dealing With Censorship, 1979.)

This community education effort has been repeated each year in varying forms, despite ever greater financial constraints and limited resources. Its benefits have been substantial.

First, it has saved an innovative and effective curriculum from the constant threat of censorship. Former principal Lynn Studer makes this clear: “Every year before the course was started, we’d have some objection to the curriculum.” The teachers are more secure now in their choice of books to “encourage a broad, realistic view of this world and its possibilities and affirm for the students a sense of themselves as reasoning and reasonable people.”

The adult classes have done more than quell objections; they have built strong communal support for the department’s program and its broad goals. A general attitude of trust, openness, and cooperation between parents and teachers has replaced the mutual suspicion, estrangement, and antagonism that characterized their relationship before.

Beyond the boost to the school’s educational program, the adult classes have brought important and lasting benefits to the community as a whole. In an area with few communal cultural resources, they have offered residents a meaningful group encounter with good literature, and have given neighbors a new basis for communication and friendship.

The testimony of those who participated in the project tells the story well. One parent sent this note to her child’s teacher: “I found A Day No Pigs Would Die a beautiful and inspiring book. If my son learns nothing else from this book, I hope he learns the value of a man as a man, regardless of education, wealth, or social status. I think your selection of this book, for required reading, is a very good choice.”

Another parent, who admits that before the course she was an outspoken critic of the curriculum, told me: “Sometimes when kids come home from school some things get lost in the translation. After the course, we felt freer to call the teacher up and check things out.”

The same parent added: “The classes brought people together. I thought we’d have nothing in common. I never reached out to find out. I found out we have a lot in common.”

A third parent, praising the “dedication of the teachers,” said simply, “I feel my children are in good hands.”

As for the teachers who took part in the effort, one told me: “It helped parents see that we had the children’s best interests at heart, that we weren’t trying to force them to be different.”

There were other benefits, too. As another teacher said: “Talking with parents gives a whole different perspective on the child. I really enjoyed it--even though at the end of the day you may dread having to stay three hours longer--it was worth it.”

Would Fort Frye’s approach to dealing with censorship work elsewhere? Lynn Studer is convinced that it would: “Once you get parents participating, involved in the school, you rarely have problems. The key is one or two teachers who are dedicated enough to set it up and follow through. I don’t think enough teachers are aware of this.”

The teachers say that they couldn’t have done it without the solid support of the school administration and several members of the community who appreciated, at the outset, the value of literature.

Yet the success of the effort ultimately depended, as Jim Creighton puts it, “on the teachers’ openness and willingness to take a chance.’' There were real risks, of course, in inviting the community to scrutinize the curriculum more closely. “Every book we teach might be censored then,” observes one of the teachers. They had to believe strongly in what they were doing. They had to believe, too, that reason would prevail.

What is the larger significance of Fort Frye’s experience? A few months ago, an established journalist doing a feature on censorship for a major popular monthly tried to persuade me that Fort Frye was a “special case.” It would be nave to suppose, he maintained, that such efforts could succeed in other areas, where “highly organized extremists are attempting to dismantle our whole system of public education.” I disagree.

True, there are extremists out there, individuals with minds clamped shut. They exist, unfortunately, at both ends of the political spectrum. I’ve seen them in the New Rightists who ride roughshod over our constitutional liberties. I’ve also seen them in elitist “liberals” who arrogantly denigrate the masses.

What the impact of “Books Our Children Read” tells me, however, is that the extremists are far outnumbered by people like the parents and teachers of Fort Frye, mostly earnest, decent individuals with legitimate, if varying, concerns about the problems of our society and their effect on children’s lives. Fort Frye’s modest anti-censorship experiment tells me that if only we have the courage to reason together, we can find a common ground in the midst of our differences--despite the extremists.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 29, 1982 edition of Education Week as Commentary: Building Bridges Instead of Walls:An Anti-Censorship Effort That Worked


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