Censorship or First Amendment? Teachers or book police? Ideas or ideology? Free expression or thought control? Literature or trash? Responsible parenting or political advocacy?
Information or propaganda? Secular or spiritual? Education or indoctrination?
So many issues to debate, so many questions, so few perfect answers.
The national effort to focus attention on the content of certain books being used in public schools made its way to Hall County this week with parents on both sides of the issue speaking out at a meeting of the county board of education.
Thankfully, the local debate over the appropriateness of certain books has to this point been a civil one, unlike what has happened in some other areas of the country. That doesn’t mean the passion is any less on either side of the argument.
The current movement is certainly not something new. Such efforts seem to have arisen periodically in the nation’s history, often following a significant shift in national politics.
What is new is the advent of social media, which provides high-octane fuel to any debate and gives legs to any effort of organizing around a cause. So you have national groups fighting to have certain titles removed from the classrooms; and national groups fighting to stop the removal of those same books.
As has been obvious through the years, there are no easy answers to the questions being raised and the challenges being issued. Anyone looking for a quick answer to demands after this week’s board meeting is likely to be disappointed.
How much is too much when it comes to introducing school students to divisive topics? How explicit is too explicit when dealing with the realities of sexual beings? How explosive is too explosive when discussing social causes? How real is too real? How young is too young?
We do not have the answers. School officials do not have the answers. Parents do not have the answers. While the debate is timely and raging, a quick resolution to the matters at hand is not only unlikely but nearly impossible to achieve.
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To participate intelligently in the great debate over books, we would suggest these parameters are true:
Not every book ever written is appropriate for use in a public school.
Not every book being challenged in school systems across the nation is devoid of educational value.
Lost in the flurry of quotes and passages shared from certain books is the issue of context. Three profane sentences in a 300-page book may not diminish its value as a teaching tool; cover-to-cover focus on an explicit topic in a tome that offers little else to challenge the mind may make it inappropriate.
There is a difference between those books that are assigned to be read by students and those that are available to be voluntarily read in school media centers.
The vast majority of professional educators make decisions about books based on their educational value. A very small number may stir the pot for the sake of controversy or simply to follow a controversial trend.
The vast majority of outraged parents are sincere in their beliefs that students are being harmed by some of the books they are tasked with reading. A very small number just likes the anti-education fight or engages in debate because others within their group are doing so.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to determining age appropriateness for certain topics.
There are some difficult topics that must be discussed if students are to emerge into the adult world educated and capable of living mature lives, no matter how difficult they may be. The fact that something was not an important issue a generation ago does not mean that it is not important today.
From demands for publicly approved lesson plans in some corners, to calls for publicly accessible classroom cameras in others, the current debate over how public schools operate and the extent to which classroom strategies should be shared with the public has teachers and administrators in an untenable position that makes it nearly impossible to function. The situation is likely to get worse.
There are parents for whom any discussion of certain topics in a public school environment is inappropriate. There are parents who feel just as strongly that public schools are the perfect place for those discussions to take place.
The issue isn’t just works of fiction and literature. In Florida, math texts have been removed because of references to race. History texts in some locales have been challenged for their retelling of past events. Science books dealing with the subject of climate change are subject to scrutiny, just as their treatment of evolutionary theory has been subject to protest by some for decades.
Much of the current brouhaha over books would suggest there is no process in place for parents to challenge books or opt students out of certain books that are assigned. That is not the case locally, but it may be existing procedures can be improved upon and given a higher profile.
There are procedural things that can be done to deal with the needs of students on an individual basis, but if a book is determined to have educational merit, there is no justification in denying all students the opportunity to learn in order to satisfy the demands of a few students.
The governor has signed a new state law that requires schools to respond within a set time to book challenges, and to have an appeal process in place.
As a group, we entrust those in the education profession with the wellbeing of our children on a daily basis. When it comes to the methodology for vetting books for use in classrooms and libraries, we would argue that they are better suited for the tasks than are populist politicians with an eye toward re-election.
That said, if there are viable options for improving upon the current system for reviewing and challenging books that will result in improved education rather than chaos, then those ideas should be explored.
A reality of public education is that it is designed to deal with huge numbers of diverse people, with the goal of educating students as efficiently as possible. By design, it is impossible for a public school system to make everyone happy. Nor will any resolution to the issue of challenging books in schools.