Some complaints are legitimate, particularly in our current climate of education funding cuts. Others, however, are based on nothing more than the parent’s rosy memory about the education he or she received (that faulty assumption that everything was better in the past!) or, in the worst cases, the parent’s bizarre desire to force his or her views on everyone else’s children.
It’s usually the latter type of person who challenges the books included in the curriculum or on the library shelves. I sympathize with the teachers and school administrators who have to deal with those complaints—that is, until they cave in to the pressure. From a public relations perspective, what may seem like a reasonable policy of appeasing parents can backfire if the school’s decision to ban books makes the news.
Remember when the Alamogordo Public School District in New Mexico withdrew Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere from the 10th grade curriculum? The district restored the book, but not in time to save itself from widespread public scrutiny.
When I wrote about that fiasco, I noted how a distict’s decision to remove a book from the curriculum differs from its decision to remove it from the school library:
A curriculum forces students to read certain material, whether they or their parents want such exposure, while the library merely provides students with access to materials they could choose to borrow. Thus, it makes sense that there would be wider latitude given to districts to remove books from school curricula than to remove books from library shelves.
As a result, courts rarely disturb a school district’s decisions about curricula. See, e.g., Ward v. Polite, 667 F.3d 727 (6th Cir. 2012) (“Curriculum choices are a form of school speech, giving schools considerable flexibility in designing courses and policies and in enforcing them so long as they amount to reasonable means of furthering legitimate educational ends.”).
So, considering how hard it is for parents to challenge the inclusion or exclusion of a supposedly controversial book, how should districts handle parental complaints? Just about every book — even something as seemingly innocuous as Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree — is “controversial” to someone.
Well, my preferred response is for the district to consider whether the book furthers a legitimate, age-appropriate educational goal. If so, then ignore the complaint. If the district still wants to appease the parent, though, another option is to provide an exemption that gives parents an opportunity to force their children to “opt out” of reading certain books.
Recently, the Highland Park Independent School District in Texas, another district with self-imposed book banning woes has decided to offer exemptions to parents who disagree with the content in six books: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. Shipler, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, Dracula by Bram Stoker, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.
Well, the exemption option is certainly a less restrictive alternative to removing the book from the curriculum altogether. I hope parents will actually read those books themselves (as unlikely as that may be) and consider what exactly it is about those books that scares them before they require their child “opt out.” As I discussed in Please Stop Parenting my Children, if what they fear is that new ideas in those books will “brainwash” their children, all I can say is this:
[E]xposure to many different ideas doesn’t brainwash people. It’s the exposure to only one idea or belief system that does. If the mere exposure to new ideas is enough for those old beliefs to crumble, then its proponents should stop to consider why their beliefs aren’t more persuasive. In my opinion, an idea that can’t withstand a fair debate isn’t an idea worth passing onto the next generation.
In the end, though, I suspect that many of the students whose parents force them to “opt out” will read those books as soon as they can on their own. For teenagers, is there a better indicator of what they should be doing than what their stodgy, traditionalist parents say is wrong?