I’m a retired English teacher with over 30 years of experience in public school classrooms, grades 7 through 12. One of my most important takeaways from those years is that in school it’s “students first, subject matter second.”
Whether working with tender 12-year-olds in 7th grade or almost-adult 18-year-olds in 12th grade, I loved and respected my students first, then loved and respected my subject matter second.
I am watching the controversy over book selections in libraries and classrooms across the country, and especially locally here in the Central Bucks School District, and I believe “students first” is being shoved aside as subject matter in both fiction and nonfiction book selections seems to be the primary focus.
Not only that, but a narrow view of subject matter is causing otherwise sensible people to seek out what they decide is objectionable material in textbooks and literary works through a narrow lens of ideology. Further, a line here or a word there is often taken out of the context of an entire work and held up as indicative of a threatening or damaging theme. Can we all take a collective cleansing breath here?
There is needless hysteria whipped up by extremist propaganda as if no one has read George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” Remember “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”? The pigs take over the farm, the dogs become their bodyguards, and an elite class keeps the rest of the animals poor, hungry, and sick. Sure, it’s a “beast fable,” but reading it as a 13-or 14-year-old creates an opportunity for all kinds of critical thinking and understanding. I remember how my students enjoyed chanting the sheep’s motto, “Four legs good, two legs bad” and then realizing that they were being brainwashed. Out of such reading comes understanding, knowledge, even wisdom.
And there seems to be some collective disregard for tolerance and respect for differences as if Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” has gone unread by too many. Remember Atticus Finch’s line: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Have we forgotten this advice, or have too many never read it? What happens if 15- or 16-year-olds are not allowed to read others’ points of view, but only the one narrowly defined as the “right” one? Where does tolerance go? And when Scout gently says “Hey Boo” to the feared and reviled Boo Radley who has just saved the children’s lives, I remember how my students were sometimes emotionally moved to greater compassion. That is priceless.
What about Shakespeare’s plays? Are they too going to be shelved because someone has decided that a line here or a scene there somehow crosses their narrowly defined, dogmatic “morality”? Shylock says in “The Merchant of Venice” “Hath not a Jew eyes? .... If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
Students read back 400 years to Elizabethan England’s cultural divide between Christians and Jews. If our students aren’t exposed to the conflicts and human dilemmas from past centuries by reading controversial and thought-provoking texts, how can they understand the conflicts and human dilemmas of our own century? I remember a class discussion in which a Jewish student, an Islamic student, and a Christian student shared their readings of these lines and came to see each other differently and with greater understanding. That was a moment of grace as well as learning.
Place young people at the forefront of our collective concerns and allow them to draw their own conclusions. Their minds and hearts can and should be exposed to all kinds of challenging novels, plays, poems, historical accounts, memoirs, letters, articles, and more. They are smarter than you think, and in a middle school or high school classroom they are in a group of their peers who do not all think alike.
And that is the beauty of it: Exposure to all kinds of reading material and open discussion and analysis by young people of varying religious, cultural, racial, and ethnic backgrounds. This is a recipe for critical thinking, not brainwashing or proselytizing, or propagandizing. Opening books about all manner of subjects and human experience opens minds and hearts. Closing the opportunity for this exploration of ideas is a tragedy for our kids, our community, our country, our planet.
Censorship is about power and control and fear. It cuts off the healthy sharing of ideas. It defines education as indoctrination. And out of unreasonable distrust in young people’s ability to think, it blocks off avenues of thought. In a misguided attempt to protect young people, censors damage them by closing their minds.This is dangerous. Just like healthy plants need air, water, and good soil, our kids need freedom to breathe, nourishment for their minds as well as their bodies, and grounding in complex and enriching exposure to diverse readings.
Emily Dickinson wrote, “There is no frigate like a book.” Yes, we travel back in time, we sail off to distant lands, and we meet people who are amazingly different from ourselves by reading. That’s the point.
Censors, keep your hands off the wide, varied, complicated bookshelves and book rooms in our schools. Instead, trust that professional educators have students in mind first – and that’s plural: Students, in all their amazing differences and complexities.
Jeannine Mitchell lives in Furlong.