Sunday, January 22, 2012

Banning Books

A couple days ago I updated and re-posted a piece on spanking. In it I made the statement that I hoped that if one continued to insist on engaging in this violent practice, at least, as reasonable people, we could agree that "if the child is too young to understand why he is being spanked, he is too young to be spanked."

In the comments a reader responded, in part:

"I've heard several times the argument that 4-5 is "too old" for spanking, that once they're old enough to reason and communicate with, spanking is no longer "necessary" . . . The idea of striking a baby (or baby that walks -- toddler) is abhorrent, but some people do believe they "know better" and that spanking is the best/only way to communicate with a non-verbal child."

Don't get me wrong, this reader is also morally against spanking, but was only trying to point out that I was incorrect in my assumption that "everyone agrees." What I actually wrote was that "I hope every reasonable person agrees." A person who buys this rationale for hitting babies is not a reasonable person. I've been a little sick since reading this: a mixture of deep pit-of-the-stomach sadness and impotent rage. Most sickening, I think, is that there is a kind of logic in this argument, one that a person unpracticed in the habits of critical thinking might very well accept, especially if it comes from a purported authority figure. 

(I am, in fact, quite certain that there are some people out there propagating this heinousness by playing-acting in the role of "authority." I'm equally certain that someone who reads this will know from whence this is abusive idea comes. And I'm not at all certain that I want to know who it is because I just might not be able to handle having a face attached to this viciousness. But that's not what I want to write about today.)

We too often get lost in the letters and numbers of literacy and math when we discuss education, neglecting, I think, the far more, or at least equally, important aspects of what education ought to be. (I'll try this again) I hope every reasonable person agrees that the development of critical thinking skills stands at the top of the list of things we want from education, if only to make sure our children are competent to protect themselves from charlatans who would, for instance, try to convince them that hitting babies is a loving way to communicate with them. Of course, we want our children to grow into adults capable of thinking for themselves, clearly, skeptically, with an open mind, but backed up with the incisiveness of logic, the basic knowledge of history, literature and science, and compassion for those who are in some way weaker than ourselves.

I'm sure by now you've heard the story that the Tucson Unified Public School District has "banned" certain books, all of which were texts being used in their Mexican-American studies program. I just want to be clear that they were blackmailed into this by the Arizona Department of Education who threatened to withhold some $14 million in funds should they not comply. There are not many school districts in this day and age that can afford that kind of hole in their budget, so one can hardly blame them for giving in. The district has pointed out that the media reports are wrong, that the books in question have not been banned. They will still apparently be available to students through the library, just not as part of classroom curricula.

What's going on in Arizona is not so much an attack on books as an attack on critical thinking, an attack lead by a charlatan who is using the same kind of "logic" that leads to the argument that hitting is a form of loving communication. In this case, there is a face to this viciousness and it's Arizona Superintendent for Public Instruction John Huppenthal who has been for the past two years campaigning to stop the Mexican-American studies program essentially using the argument that teaching American history from the perspective of Hispanic and indigenous people, rather than from the point of view of the northern European colonizers, hampers critical thinking and, in fact, promotes racism

There is, like with the baby spankers, a kind of perverse logic at play here, the kind that appeals to those who struggle with actual critical thinking. It goes something like this: the kids in the Mexican-American studies classes are only learning about American history from the perspective of those who were ultimately supplanted by the current dominant culture, a dominant culture that has not always treated them fairly, humanely, or even as full human beings, often enslaving and murdering them only on the basis of their ethnic or racial heritage. Huppenthal and his followers don't deny this history, but are wailing that teaching it, and teaching it in this way, will lead to resentment of white people, a division between the races; that it tells a story of oppressor-and-oppressed, one at odds with the mythologized traditional telling of our history as one long, triumphant march toward freedom and equality for all. They throw out the words "indoctrination," "racism," and "class war," by way to supporting their point of view.

In other words, what Huppenthal and his supporters are calling for is that these students, in a school district that is 60 percent Hispanic, continue to be taught the same version of history that they have been taught since they were in kindergarten. It's not a bad version of history, full of lots of great feats and edifying ideas, but history is always told with a perspective, usually from that of the "winners," and if anything it's this version of "history" that is the indoctrination. Huppenthal's version of history is one that primarily concerns itself with the perspective of the European conquerors. I'm sure, judging from his comments, that he wouldn't mind if other points-of-view were considered, say as sidebars to the main text, which is the way it's most often been done, but no, his objection is to a single class being given over to an alternative vision.

Of course, when considered in the context of a child's entire educational history, not to mention portrayals in popular media, the Mexican-American studies program is still little more than a sidebar, one that challenges students to consider, for once, history from the side of the "losers," to view history through the lens of Marxism, to consider current events for a few hours a week through a re-interpretation of the dominant paradigm. Alternative perspectives, such as that of a minority, and ideologies, such as Marxism, are the tools of critical thinking. Of course, Huppenthal would be correct if this Mexican-American studies viewpoint were the only one being taught to the children in Tucson's public schools; then it would be an indoctrination in the way that the "traditional" telling of American history has been a kind of indoctrination for the children up until they hit this curriculum in high school.

The inability to step outside of our own shoes and into those of another is exactly the kind of thing that misleads people into believing that a baby can somehow understand why it is being hit by the person who is supposed to love her the most. It doesn't take a lot of looking at the world from a baby's perspective to understand why hitting it is a bad, bad idea. It's understandable why people, stirred up by charlatans like Huppenthal and his narrow up-is-down logic might feel threatened by children being taught to look at the world from all sides, including those that might actually assert that up is indeed up, sideways or backwards. That's because when only one perspective is allowed, it becomes an article not of fact, but of faith, and it scares the daylights out of people to have their faith challenged.

At the core of this controversy is a new Arizona law, promoted by Huppenthal and his supporters, that makes illegal any class that "promote(s) resentment toward a race or class of people." That pretty much outlaws the teaching of history altogether, which has largely been, and continues to be, the struggle between races and classes.

As many of you know, Shakespeare is one of the centerpieces of our family life together. His genius is one of those intersections at which my wife, daughter, and I meet in agreement and common passion. So it has outraged us all that among the books reportedly "banned" in Tucson is The Tempest, a play that is near and dear of our hearts. I've been having a hard time comprehending that one. My daughter Josephine pointed out that Romeo and Juliet has often been banned by schools due to its themes of pre-marital sex and suicide, but we could not at first fathom why The Tempest could be found to "promote resentment toward a race or class of people."

It was Josephine who proposed that it must have something to do with Caliban, the only inhabitant of the island ruled by Prospero, who reviles him as some sort of less than human beast ("mooncalf") and forces him into a life of servitude. It took us awhile, but we finally figured out that the play must have been taught by some of the teachers as a kind of allegory of European conquest of the Americas, in which Prospero arrives on the island, supplants the witch Sycorax as ruler, then enslaves her son. That the play ends in contrition and forgiveness, a place to which we are still struggling to arrive as a nation, probably only makes it more threatening to those who hold firm to their faith in the always triumphant one-perspective version of history.

I am incredibly gratified that my 15-year-old daughter has the critical thinking skills, and the breadth of knowledge, to help me work this out. What a creative way for these teachers to use this great piece of literature as a new perspective, or rather a 400 year old perspective from within the European conqueror perspective, to look at our nation's history. So you see, The Tempest has not been banned, but rather only this interpretation of the play has been banned. The Tucson schools haven't been forced to ban books, but to, much worse, ban critical thinking, which I see is the real purpose of Huppenthal and his ilk. You see, critical thinkers aren't apt to just take things on faith and that, for unreasonable people, is a very frightening thing.

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Floor Pie said...

I hadn't heard about the Arizona thing (or about the "okay to spank a baby" theory. WTF, people?) Josephine is absolutely right. Many teachers present a "colonizer/colonized" reading of The Tempest. If the school district hasn't banned the entire Shakespeare canon, maybe teachers could replace The Tempest with other plays that work with that reading. Or, like I said on FB, how about Measure for Measure? Government locking people up for immorality. Strong stuff.

One unintended positive side of book banning is that it can make students more interested in reading. Suddenly Shakespeare seems less "boring" and irrelevant if it's got the adults so worked up. It makes literature political and charged again, instead of dusty, static, and canonized. Hopefully some of these students will go out and read The Tempest on their own.

tomsensori said...

Five or so years ago, I went to hear Sam Meisels talk. He said he had testified before Congress about the need to fund EC programs. They told him to come back when he could demonstrate the effectiveness of such programs. He returned with the positive data showing the value of the Perry Preschool Project. There was a different party in power, though, and his testimony had little effect. What he said has stuck with me. He said:"Idelogy trumps data." I think we can safely add that ideology trumps data and reasoned argument. Tom

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

Thank you for this discussion. I had just heard about the book banning briefly on the news - it saddens me terribly.
I'm sorry - but there is something surreal about book banning in this day and age - I truly find myself wondering how people can have elected individuals like this individual, and then allow him to do this.
I love the Shakespeare story from your family...and as Floor Pie points out perhaps the kids will then be more motiviated to read the banned books.

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