Monday, November 1, 2010

Are Banned Books Really the Lowest of Literature?

by Stephen J. Gertz

Yesterday, the Springfield, Missouri News-Leader printed a letter to the editor titled Banned Books Are Lowest of Literature.

"Regarding the brouhaha over 'banned' books: The people who want their kids exposed to 'authentic adolescent' thoughts, words and actions via literature are incensed that anyone would question them. That there might be thousands of years of literature that is edifying, uplifting and pointing young minds in a morally healthy direction isn't on their radar screen.

"What isn't being taught in our schools is as disconcerting as what is being taught. We have mountains of wisdom collected over eons of time from Plato, Augustine, de Tocqueville, Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington ... but we give our students drag queens, deranged people, bestiality, obscenity, vulgarity. Why are we giving our kids the darkest crumbs of humanity in lieu of knowledge derived at great sacrifice that improves our human condition?"

“The philosophy of the classroom in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next." Who said this? Abraham Lincoln. What kind of government will the classrooms of today bring us as a nation?

“Conservatives, these are our schools, too. This is our money, these are our kids and we can do better than sit back and get run over by the biggest mouths with the lowest standards. And a technical point: it isn't a ‘ban’ when you can order the questioned books online or go get them at the public library.”

Technical point, albeit pedantic: If the book in question is not allowed in the school library it is, by definition, banned; it doesn't matter whether the book can be bought down the street. From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: "To prohibit especially by legal means; also: to prohibit the use, performance, or distribution of: ban a book, ban a pesticide."

But perhaps the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is not the best place to seek the definition of a word: The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary was banned from the Menifee, Calif. Union School District earlier this year after a parent complained about the inclusion of “oral sex” in the dictionary. The words fellatio and cunnilingus - both in the same dictionary -  did not, apparently, bother them. Go figure.

I, too, hate being run over by the biggest mouths with the lowest standards, specifically the lowest standards of critical thinking. The biggest mouths are currently (but not exclusively) being opened by Conservatives, some of whom express beliefs anathema to true Conservative thought; extremism (“Any political theory favoring immoderate uncompromising policies”) is not, by definition, Conservative: “Cautious, avoiding excess; resistant to change.” A political movement that wishes, in one fell swoop, to undo eighty years of social and economic legislation passed in good faith by the elected representatives of the majority of the citizens of the United States and validated, when necessary, by the judiciary is not conservative; it is radical.

Perhaps a return to the first principles of classical primary education is in order, as the letter writer seems to suggest: Grammar, logic, and rhetoric. And to those of classical secondary education: the sciences, mathematics, music and history And also an exclusive return to the great canon of Western literature. But maybe not.

• Silas Marner
• Huckleberry Finn
• Tom Sawyer
• Macbeth
• Twelfth Night
• King Lear
• The Merchant of Venice
• Uncle Tom’s Cabin

These classic books and plays, at one time or another (and within recent memory), have been challenged and/or removed from public school library shelves for questionable language, behavior, sentiment, and morality. While they've never been banned, the books of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë were criticized by some upon their publication for reasons of dubious morality.

I was educated during the 1950s-1960s and the works of Plato, Augustine, Tocqueville, Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington were not assigned reading in the public elementary, junior and senior high schools in New York City and California that I attended, nor, I think, in any other public school in the United States of the era. My generation managed to make it to adulthood with moral compass intact. “Drag queens, deranged people, bestiality, obscenity, vulgarity” would have made the syllabus a lot more colorful, to be sure, but far less so than the dark hued specter of nuclear annihilation which had already predisposed children of that era to question whether future was a viable concept. Drag queens, deranged people, bestiality, obscenity, and vulgarity would have been a relief. And a lot more hopeful than "Duck and Cover!"

I first heard the word bastard when I was five years old. What did I do? Before my moral cookie crumbled I asked my parents what the word meant. At the dinner table.

“Where did you hear that word?” Dad asked, darkly.

“From Barbara!” (my older sister).

Aside from learning how to get my sister into trouble (as I knew it would; I understood that it was a  bad word even if I didn't know its definition), I learned that it was possible to talk about touchy subjects with my parents who, when asked a direct question, usually gave a direct answer. Pretty much all that is objected to in juvenile and adolescent literature then, as now, could be and was  learned on the streets, from friends or siblings, and always with a low-standard of credibility. A thirteen year old girl I knew in junior high school c. 1964 thought that you could get pregnant from oral sex. Her friend told her. Her friend was pregnant, apparently ashamed of the truth. Better to hear about this stuff in the classroom where it can at least be intelligently discussed and explained; many families do not have a tradition of adults and children talking about the world in all its glory or messiness.

Does a member of the far-Right really want the work of those esteemed individuals cited by the letter-writer taught in public school classrooms?

Plato was unhappy with the way Athenians allowed themselves to be blindly led by values unexamined by critical analysis. He saw human nature guided by rationality and believed that civilized life be lived according to rational principles. The irrational in whatever manner it manifests itself is the way to chaos; live by facts, not feelings.

Augustine was a Catholic and you don’t want Papists to lead in America.

Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, gushed about the intimacy of Christianity and public life in the U.S. -

“In the United States the sovereign authority is religious, and consequently hypocrisy must be common; but there is no country in the whole world in which the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America, and there can be no greater proof of its utility, and of its conformity to human nature, than that its influence is most powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth”

- but he was also a critic of our extreme individuality. Tocqueville also believed that the natural elite class, those possessing superior talent and intelligence, were the only virtuous members of American society but didn’t have much of a chance against the general mediocrity of the masses. This elitism was to be respected not denigrated; it is natural and desirable to aspire upwards, not downward to the lowest common denominator.

Hamilton believed in the primacy of a strong central government. Jefferson was considered an atheist in his time; he was certainly dubious about allowing religion to guide public policy. George Washington was and remains something of a cypher but was, without question, a member of Colonial America’s elite. All of the above were highly suspicious of the passions of the mob and its behavior. Read the mob as average Americans; the Founders did. Political populism is dangerous; it is irrational and does not appeal to our higher selves but, rather, our baser instincts. Perhaps if the Founders were actually read instead of simply referred to the confusion would be resolved.

Don’t get me started on that libertine Benjamin Franklin. He’s the bum who insisted that Jefferson change “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” to “we hold these truths to be self-evident” in the Declaration of Independence to make the document an assertion of rationality, not religious view.

“The philosophy of the classroom in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next." Somebody said that but it wasn’t Lincoln, who was an extremely reluctant censor of newspapers and the telegraph in the U.S. during the Civil War. That wise proverb was written by an anonymous sage who, wherever he is, is probably not pleased that his words have been emancipated into the Great Emancipater's mouth and out again. And that they have been co-opted by one arguing in favor of the kind of censorship that Lincoln abhorred.

A philosophy of the classroom that includes forbidding otherwise fine books because they may contain something morally objectionable to somebody; that cherry-picks science to exclude that which is offensive to a faction’s belief; that champions a literary curriculum that no matter how timeless may be completely out of touch with the times we currently live in or, if not, completely foreign to modern students by the cultural landscape it illuminates those eternal verities within and thus potentially lose the readers it wishes to develop; and that wishes to institutionalize the cultural values of one class of citizen at the expense of the majority and Constitutional  principle  will produce a philosophy of government that no true lover of American liberty can tolerate.

It is one of the great ironies of the American narrative that the United States Constitution, written by an elite class to democratically (with limits - hence representative democracy) govern a necessarily well-educated citizenry by embrace and protection of our citizenry’s basic rights, has, in its brilliance, transcended its place, time, and creators to embrace and protect those who have come afterward, no matter their race, religion, or point of view. That it is often being used as a weapon by many on the current political scene to do just the opposite in the name of traditional values is not just hypocrisy and travesty, it is a mockery of those traditional values.

America has always depended upon the new and the novel; we are the New World, exciting, experimental, and a work in constant progress. We are intrepid, courageous, and we do not allow our fears to overwhelm our hopes. Part of our national ethos has always been forward movement beyond the traditional, whether the desire of the Pilgrims to find a place for themselves away from the religious intolerance of the Old World, or minorities seeking respite and succor from political intolerance in their homelands.  We make our own history, it is not made for us. The Constitution is bigger than the men and milieu by and in which it was created. It is America's gift to the world. Like Samuel Johnson on second marriages but without the cynicism, it is the triumph of hope over experience.

These are the traditional values that we should be instilling in our children at home and in our schools to insure that the subsequent philosophy of our government remains true to its ideals. Rigid ideological orthodoxy was foreign and distasteful to the Founding Fathers, who wished to avoid political parties altogether.

In his Farewell Address in 1796, George Washington made it very clear where he stood on the issue.

"[Political parties] serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests.”

That’s a true Conservative point of view. We don't hear much of it these days.

Live and let live is perhaps the greatest tacit message of the Founders and the Constitution. These days, however, a little too much emphasis is placed on the live and not enough on the let live part of the equation.

Or the let read.


Over 18,000 people have read The Dirty Dozen: Twelve Books Guaranteed to Turn (Almost) Anyone a Censor by Booktryst's Nancy Mattoon. Have you?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email