The Federal Republic of Germany has a watchdog agency that scrutinizes, looking for material that will "endanger youth." Last year it considered 151 possible offenders, and banned 120 of them. The program is considered successful but it had a bad moment when tykes from a fourth grade school came home chanting a naughty jingle. Aghast, the parents asked where in the world they ever heard anything like that, and it turned out the jingle was part of their lessons. Appropriate action was taken, and the school committee suspended the teacher, who was a young lady of charm and talent, and she was astonished at this forthright approach.
"Why," she said, "the jingle is on a phonograph record supplied to the school by the Federal Ministry of Education!" It was even so.
The Federal Ministry of Education did a little self-searching, and found the phonograph record in context had been prepared by a recognized expert in German folklore, a young man with a good reputation and a questionable guitar, and they asked him to explain the presence of this jingle in a collection that was meant to be suitable for fourth-grade work. He, in turn, expressed astonishment.
He hadn't thought much about it, he said. He heard the jingle, he said, and felt it was good folklore and should be included. He looked up his notes, and told them he first heard the jingle in a fourth-grade schoolyard, as an accompaniment to a childish game. The teacher was reinstated, but they say that she now smiles quite a good deal to herself.
Protecting youthful morals is not exactly new. When my father was a boy, the big thing was the dime novel. Deadwood Dick and Nick Carter stood as tall as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and there were those who sputtered at this blight on our culture. Cheap thrillers, the dime novel stories played on Colonial history. Indian wars, the frontier, the romantic violence of the American way. They had their influence on the country's attitude, our national vigor and our posture of superiority. The dime novel was superseded by the pulp adventure magazines and the outcry from disturbed citizens continued. People should be reading something better. My father said his father set himself up as the literary umpire, and whenever a dime novel came into the old farmhouse, Grandfather would read it first to see if it was fit to be read by the impressionable young folks whose morals were at stake.
If a book survived this critique, it would be found on the shelf in the kitchen as soon as he had finished it. If he found the story objectionable, he would take it out to the barn. In the grain room, over the meal bins, there was an exposed timber on which he kept those books he found unworthy of his family. He could climb on a box, stand on the meal bins, and just reach this timber by standing tiptoe. Out of harm's way, his collection of banned titles grew, until there was quite a library of evil up that timber. This was the American and Gay Ninety version of the present Bundesprufstelle fur jugendgefahrdende Schriften.m
It's pretty hard today to believe that so much concern existed about the dime novels' being a curse to culture and a threat to youthful probity. Any of the Ann Stephens novels today, would bore a youngster to tears, and certainly would not be worth a climb over a haymow. The scalping of a few Indians, delicately and discreetly described, wouldn't jar today's youngsters, who get worse than that from the TV in cereal commercials. And besides, as with the naughty jingle in West Germany, it could turn out that the young folks are way ahead of us prudish old straight-backs. Eh?