Thursday, September 25, 2014

Anti-Sectarian Intolerance

The latest from the increasingly strange world we live in:
A California charter school has decided to pull Corrie ten Boom’s Holocaust memoir, The Hiding Place, from its library because the content was deemed too religious. . . . When the Pacific Justice Institute, a Christian legal defense group, sent a cease-and-desist notice, the school superintendent responded, “We . . . do not allow sectarian materials on our state-authorized lending shelves.”
Because, I guess, we're going to teach about the Holocaust now without mentioning religion.

I have read again and again about American teachers and even principals who seem to think that the establishment clause forbids them from teaching about religion or assigning religious books, which it does not. As if it were possible to understand humanity without looking into religion.

The Hiding Place is a bit controversial because it is an explicitly Christian book about the Holocaust; the ten Boom family helped Jews for Christian reasons and Corrie wrote about her experience in Christian terms. If I were going to teach one book about the Holocaust I would certainly choose one by a Jew. But what I think is the best text for teaching this subject is a completely separate matter from what school libraries can have on their shelves, and they absolutely can and should have religious books. The difference between preaching religion and teaching about religions is too subtle for a lot of people, but it should not be beyond school principals.


G. Verloren said...

You're framing this in reference to "teaching the Holocaust", but the actual context is merely the simple presence of the book within the library. It's not a question of whether the school is having students read this book - it is only a question of whether the book is on a shelf somewhere, where students might potentially read it.

Now, on the one hand, the act of banning books is patently absurd - and even demonstrably counterproductive for the cause of "combatting" unpopular concepts and ideas (to say nothing of the morality of even trying to engage in such "combat" in the first place.

On the other hand, schools are very sensitive to public opinion, as well as pressure from the governmental bodies that control their funding. They have to make decisions about who they can afford to displease - because they can't please everyone, and certain people are much more important to please than others from a purely practical standpoint. (And it doesn't help that the people making these hard decisions aren't always the best choice for the task.)

I personally see no harm in a school library containing any books you like. Most kids aren't going to bother to read Mein Kampf even if you make it available to them, and the few who do choose to spend their time poring through it are clearly intelligent, perceptive, and reflective enough to critically analyze the work on its own merits - in short, they won't somehow be magically brainwashed into goosestepping genocidal Fascists.

That said, the fact that we're hearing anything about this book at all is indicative that someone, somewhere took offense to the library offering it, and complained. And since the book got pulled, we can presume that the school at least feared the possible ramifications of these complaints going unaddressed - even if those fears were mistaked or unfounded.

They already had people upset with them for having the book - perhaps potentially influential people who could make their lives hell in various ways. They had two options: either leave the book, and face an almost certain "known" (or at least perceived) negative consequence; or remove the book and maybe come under fire for it to some unknown degree of severity.

They chose to gamble - and it could have paid off. The book might have left the shelves, and never been missed, neatly burying any complaints without complications. As it stands, someone did notice - but who knows if the controversy it has raised measures up to what they were already facing?

And remember, this is a charter school - funding is incredibly important to them, and consequently the good graces of the people holding the purse-strings weigh far more heavily on the minds of the administrators than the good graces of fiscally "unimportant" John Q. Public. I imagine most such schools would choose for an absolute certainty to offend the general public, than choose to even risk offending a funding party of any kind.

My opinion? I think it's ultimately unimportant. School libraries can only contain so many books, and I seriously doubt The Hiding Place was anything like a popular read among the student body. Are the students better served with this particular book on the shelf, or with something far more popular, checked out far more frequently?

And even if this book were astounding popular, that's the beauty of books - no one can stop you reading whatever you want on your own time. Any child who honestly wants to read this particular book of their own whims (it isn't assigned reading, remember) can do so with only a small amount of effort. They can go to a library, or a bookstore, or online, or ask around their friends to get a copy to read. The school not carrying the book in their own library is an inconvenience - not a deathknell. Anyone who genuinely wants to read the book both can and will do so with a minimum of effort.

pootrsox said...

How mores and "morals" can change with time and location....

In the late 60's or early 70's I actually *taught* Stranger in a Strange Land to 10th grade advanced students as one of the optional but acceptable texts for English classes.

Now I boggle at the thought that we did it *and* got away with it... no one even questioned us.

Around the same time, however, I did have a Black parent question our use of Huckleberry Finn-- because I dared to use the line "No'm... killed a n'r though" as a prompt for students to discuss theme and character and context. It's a great lead up to the end where Huck "light[s] out for the territories ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally, she wants to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before."

(Hope that's accurate-- typing from memory. And I think the final 1/3 of that novel is among the most darkly cynical things ever written by an American. Which is why that "killed a n'r though" is so essential to discussion of the novel.)

We were so naive, as I think back....

I find the idea of removing books from library shelves abhorrent.

I do think a little discretion on the part of the media specialists, especially in elementary and middle school library/media centers, is wise, however.

Yes to Johnny Has Two Daddies, but no to the KKK Annual Manual.

At the high school level, IMO anything not deemed "illegal" should be on the shelves.