Surely everyone who cares about the written word said a word of thanks last week for Studs Terkel. The feisty Chicagoan made a personal appearance in a small Pennsylvania town to defend his work against a campaign to remove it from the public schools. Authors whose books are subjected to such treatment usually moan and groan to their friends in the press, but it's a rare soul who ventures into the lion's den to meet the enemy face to face; for his willingness to do that Terkel, a doughty old ham if ever one strutted onto a stage, deserves a round of raucous applause.
But a word needs also to be said on behalf of the band of parents in the town of Girard who believe that the schools have no business requiring their kids to read Terkel's book, "Working," which contains a generous selection of common profanities. Those of us who oppose the banning and/or censoring of books -- as I most wholeheartedly and passionately do -- must bear in mind that the men and women on the other side in a case such as this are not necessarily ignorant or evil, that they have legitimate fears and concerns that cannot be lightly or contemptuously dismissed.
There is, to begin with, a difference between the banning of books from public circulation and the removal of books from the curriculum of a public school. The first is a pure and simple violation of constitutional guarantees of free speech and must be resisted at all turns. But the second is a more complex matter. Don't parents have a right to be sure that their children receive an education, financed with their own tax dollars, that is basically compatible with the values they are taught at home? Is a parent who opposes profanity for reasons of religion, taste or decorum supposed to stand by idly while his or her child -- a minor, bear in mind, by legal definition -- is required to read a book containing words offensive to that parent?
This has nothing to do with the merits of Terkel's book, which are See PREJUDICES, C2, Col. 3 PREJUDICES, From C1 considerable. Nor is there much reason to believe that the circumstances of the protest reflect much credit upon his opponents. My impression, from afar, is that a fair amount of hypocrisy is at work in Girard; for example the man who denounced "Working" on television as "crap" strikes me as a case of the pot calling the kettle black. The book is assigned reading for high school seniors, whose ears in this scatological age surely are accustomed to indelicate language. And the mother who believes that a book containing profanities presents "a distorted view of the working world" seems, to put it charitably, more than a trifle naive. "Working" is in my view eminently suitable reading for vocational students in a working-class town; the book should help prepare them for the world they plan to enter, and the teacher who put it on their reading list displayed commendable sensitivity to their interests.
All of which is true, from where I sit, but none of which addresses the question of the rights of the protesting parents. Their little movement is not comparable to the one in other school districts that has attempted to force the teaching of "creationism" upon the public schools. This latter movement is an attempt to impose a fundamentalist psuedo-science upon the curriculum; not merely is it religiously inspired and thus, as a subject for public school instruction, a violation of the Constitution, but it is also demonstrably bad science.
Dirty words are another matter altogether. Is it merely narrow-minded and self-righteous for a mother to wonder why, if her child can receive an entirely satisfactory education without being exposed to profanities, that child should be required to read a book in which they occur with some frequency? Is that mother being bigoted or intellectually constipated if she objects to her children being exposed -- not in the play yard, but in the classroom -- to words she will not allow in her own house?
No, she is not. Her objection to those words may derive from a religious fundamentalism or a priggishness that you and I find distasteful, but it remains that hers is a personal conviction that is every bit as legitimate as yours and mine. When she sends her children off to the schools that she and their father support with their tax dollars, she is well aware that for several hours of every day those schools are acting in loco parentis, and she assumes they do so with some sensitivity to the standards her children are expected to honor at home. When in her view the schools step beyond the boundaries of their responsibility and authority, exposing her children to standards of behavior that she finds objectionable, she becomes angry. With good reason.
Teachers and school administrators, on the other hand, tend to see things differently. They believe that their decisions pertaining to the curriculum are protected by "academic freedom," and they equate academic freedom with freedom of speech. At a college or university, whether public or private, the equation is valid; attendance is voluntary, and students -- who by this point are legally of age -- realize that they are in a free marketplace of ideas. But in the public schools, where attendance is compulsory and the students are minors, the equation is not so neat.
This is because although the public schools have had delegated to them (or in some instances have arrogated unto themselves) many parental responsibilities, they have not been accorded parental rights. The community grants them, for example, the power to discipline students during school hours; but the community, acting as parents, limits that power when it refuses to allow teachers or administrators to use corporal punishment. The public schools do not answer to themselves -- as teachers' organizations tend to think they do -- but to the communities of parents that support them. Their "academic freedom" is granted to them by those taxpayers, and that freedom is never absolute.
This is not an argument for censorship in the schools -- far be it from that -- or for a capitulation by the schools to the kind of yahooism that may well be stirring up the little mess in Girard. It's simply a plea, to those of us who often take reflexive positions on "free speech" issues, to recognize that when it comes to public education, a more complex set of obligations must be met. Parents, as well as English teachers, have rights.
And all parents and teachers have the responsibility, in what can often be a delicate relationship, to be rather more flexible and conciliatory than the folks of Girard seem to have been. Why was it necessary, in view of the profanities, to make "Working" required reading? Why not offer students whose parents are offended by profanity another reading choice -- Harvey Swados' "On the Line," perhaps? And as for the parents, given that we are dealing here with high school seniors, why can't they trust their kids as sufficiently mature to make their own decisions about what is and is not offensive? After all, if the lesson was taught well at home from the beginning, surely it should have sunk in by now, and the parents should have no reason to fear that their children will be corrupted by a mere book.