I HAVE TO confess: I enjoy many of the public school battles over Darwin or "dirty words," what to include in factual schoolbooks or exclude from fictional ones. What bothers me is how people give these clashes a bad name by shouting "censorship" all the time, as they are again in the New York case now before the Supreme Court.
Partly, I guess, I'm troubled by the double standard I detect in the way censorship- watchers decide when to do their serious shouting, as opposed to merely muttering asides.
Not too long ago, for example, a New York woman was incensed by a "sexist" magazine for young girls called Wildfire, marketed through the schools by a Scholastic Magazines division. After reading her 11-year-old daughter's copy, the woman protested to publisher and school system and called on feminists, teacher groups and others for help. The magazine was killed. I don't recall many cries of "censorship" in that case.
Similarly, black parents have forced "Huckleberry Finn" off a required reading list because of Mark Twain's portrayal of blacks. Jewish parents have protested classroom use of Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" because of its merciless Jewish moneylender. Mexican Americans have fought against texts depicting them as, among other things, "the villains at the Alamo." While some have mumbled about "censorship" in these and similar cases, you don't really get the big crowds here, either.
The crowds, of course, are reserved for conservative parents, those assailing four-letter- word fiction and sex education, histories that don't wave the flag enough for their taste, or works that otherwise collide with their religious, family or ideological sensibilites. Evidently these parents are not supposed to have the same right to scream when school materials offend their values. I can't buy that.
In fact, I can't buy the notion that it's improper at all for parents to challenge books or other school materials, no matter what point on the political compass the protestors hail from. I have been pleased to discover, moreover, that I have the distinguished support of the Association of American Publishers, the American Library Association and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development on this point.
A jointly sponsored book-battles study they issued last July declares that "challenges to instructional and library materials in our public schools have a legitimate function," including serving as a check on "human error" -- a very broad category indeed. Surely, then, they expect some school materials to be changed or removed. You can't say to parents: Challenging is okay, winning is bad.
If you call what sometimes results "censorship," you have to recognize that it's a long- standing tradition of American public education. For example, the 22 states with textbook adoption panels -- which judge what books local schools may choose from -- are clearly engaged in "censorship." These states, chiefly in the South and West, also heavily influence what publishers risk including in texts to begin with. So what your child reads may well have been "censored" first by Texas or California and then by a self-censoring textbook editor in New York or Boston or Chicago.
Similarly, educators -- with an eye on what happened to Socrates for unpopular teachings -- usually strive to keep local communities as contented as possible. Thus students in more conservative areas often learn one thing, those in more liberal school systems another. Almost everywhere there is this kind of educator "censorship." Indeed, last summer's book-battles study found school librarians grousing that "over 30 percent" of the book challenges they face come from other school staff members -- including teachers.
Many others -- foundations, researchers, political groups, corporations, to name some -- also have long tried to push material in or out of schools. Only the naive would suggest that aroused parents, usually the most potent of these groups, should not have equal "censorship" rights -- if you consider this "censorship" to begin with.
I don't happen to, at least not in the ominous sense of the word most of us understand: government or other officials telling us what we can and cannot read, see, hear, write or say. In this sense, it is a little strange to see government workers like public school teachers complaining, in effect, that they are the ones being censored by ordinary citizens. It is even more peculiar when the works involved are widely available elsewhere in our society.
Those who think they'll ever stop all this "censorship" are kidding themselves. Are they about to forsake their right to complain about what's taught in their children's school? If not, it would be nice if they stopped giving schoolbook "censorship" a bad name and concentrated instead on which "censors" they really support and which they oppose.
Consider some of the works listed in last summer's "censorship" study as having been "restricted, altered or removed" by public schools. One case involved a Mad magazine in an elementary school, another "Little Black Sambo" in kindergarten and elementary school, and a third a film called "South Africa" -- produced by none other than the South African government. I worry more about how those got in than how they got out.
I'd surely join fights, on the other hand, to keep in John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath," Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter," Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," E.B. White's "Stuart Little" or the American Heritage Dictionary, to name just some of the many works under fire in recent years.
But I must admit that I find the "good censors" -- those who are supposed to be on my side -- sometimes getting into dubious battles. For example, the book-battles study lists some challenged works of fiction that I would simply stick in my fine-but-why-in-school- and-what's-the-difference file. These are recent best-sellers that ended up as pop films, including "Jaws," "The Godfather," "The Amityville Horror," "Kramer vs. Kramer," "The Thorn Birds," "Love Story" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Next."
I am moved here by the counsel of one of the authors, Ken Kesey, when his "Cuckoo's Nest" became embroiled in a 1977 high school fight in little St. Anthony, Idaho. As Robert M. O'Neil reports in "Classrooms in the Crossfire," Kesey wrote a letter to the St. Anthony students and educators, in part to say:
"I object to 'Cuckoo's Nest' being taught. What's there to teach? It's an entirely simple work, a book that any high school kid can read and comprehend without help. Let 'Cuckoo's Nest' alone on the drugstore rack, and teach instead 'Moby Dick' or 'The Sound and the Fury' or works by Dickens or Hardy or Shakespeare, for crying out loud!"
Okay, teachers sometimes use popular paperbacks to lure reluctant readers; they could substitute many other works to accomplish this. The absence of "Jaws" or "The Amityville Horror" in the classroom doesn't strike me as inflicting dire deprivation on any student's mind.
Or try a slightly tougher case. The book- battles study notes, ironically, that somebody wanted to "censor" George Orwell's anti-totalitarian "1984." If you're on my side, that might start you gathering a crowd to complain at the neighborhood schoolhouse -- unless you noticed that the book was being used in lower and upper elementary school as well as in junior high. So long as it's available in higher grades, I can't get fired up about children of 7 or 9 not yet reading that modern classic.
(Irony lovers may also be interested to learn that somebody protested public school use of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" -- the only work he was permitted to publish openly in the Soviet Union. That one was being used in a junior high.)
I e -- aalso am troubled by those in my camp who have sought to battle the creation v. evolution issue on "censorship" grounds. The creationists, to begin with, have been seeking to expand, not restrict, what is taught in schools. More importantly, though, that battle has to keep being fought -- as it properly was in the Arkansas court case -- as an unacceptable breach of the wall between government and religion, not as "censorship."
What disturbs me most about "censorship" cries, however, is that they are an excuse for ignoring the troubling questions raised in these struggles, questions about how Americans are in important respects strangers, even "foreigners," to each other. If handled more thoughtfully, such controversies can become educations unto themselves, shedding important light on our deep divisions, building bridges, helping us understand each other a little better. Which is why I have long enjoyed and learned from them.
I don't think I harbor illusions about what might happen if we did understand each other better. I keep reminding myself of a remark that Harold Isaacs, professor emeritus at MIT, ascribes to a friend returning from the Republican National Convention at which Thomas Dewey was nominated for president."You have to understand Tom Dewey very well," his friend said, "to really hate him."
We have no choice, though, but to keep trying, and ducking the question by shouting "censorship" all the time isn't going to help.