ACCORDING TO THE American Library Association (ALA) and a new report of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the censorship of school books is on an alarming rise. The NCTE reports cites places such as Cedar Lake, Indiana, where the school board ordered the American Heritage Dictionary removed from the high schools because among its nine definitions for "bed" it included "a place for lovemaking." An education commissioner in Texas found four other dictionaries unfit for young eyes because of such words as "horny" and "queer." Beyond individual words, current objections are said to include: "Overconcern with minority racial and ethnic groups"; "anything that might show disrespect (or questioning) of authority"; and "any anti- or un-American stance." All of which would seem to suggest that as goes the country, so go the books.
That's one way of looking at it and, from a historical base, an understandable way, since there have always been plenty of vigilantes around - to the left as well as to the right - eager to purge the shelves of anything that seems to bisect their angle of looking at the world. Whenever that happens - when a "liberal-minded one bans Richard Wright's "Black Boy" - clearly, you may call that censorship. On the other hand, when a parent sees that a reading list for a high school English class consists solely of "Soul on Ice" and the collected works of Kurt Vonnegut, and raises holy hell to the point of persuading a school board or librarian to replace that book, it sounds more like the exercise of thoughtfull discrimination on the part of a directly concerned adult as to what his or her child grows up to regard as literature.
The point is that the issue of censorship may be both less interesting and unimportant than the process that goes on in every school every year - one that determines what a teen-ager learns of heroism, tragedy, irony, beauty, honor, wit and any other of the high moments of life that a great book gives. A teacher who chooses Kurt Vonnegut to provide such things is kidding himself and his students. He is taking what is current (or was current), and merely current, and trying to force-feed it with all the standards of a "Hamlet," thus creating the goose, without the pate. To object to this is not only reasonable, it is right; and it is certainly not censorship. There may be nothing wrong in reading Kurt Vonnegut for the fun of it, but the development of taste takes more than that.
Of course, the trouble occurs when some kook or group of kooks in or outside a school system rants against a particular book or author on political grounds, or on the grounds extraneous to the heart of an education. When that occurs, organizations such as the ALA and NCTE rightly sound the alarm - just as they ought to, in fact, whenever a teacher chooses a book for political reasons as well. But the alarm should never be so shrill as to drown out the thoughtful public who have a right and and obligation to look hard at what their children read - knowing all the while that this is no area for perfect judgment, and the books will change and opinions differ. As several great works prove, the people are never quite so dangerous as they're made to be.