Book wars: how they sidestep the key issue

IN 1973, a small group of conservative parents in Montgomery County, Md., where I was a school board member, filed an official complaint against ``Deliverance,'' a novel by James Dickey, asking that it be removed from the list of required reading for ninth-grade English classes. After the superintendent ruled that ``Deliverance'' was acceptable, the parents appealed the matter to the Board of Education. At the board's hearing, the parents charged that the book was ``negative,'' and had too many ``dirty words.'' (If the homosexual rape in the book had prompted their charges, perhaps they were too embarrassed to say so in public.)

The professional staff's defense of the book consisted of a litany of the literary credentials of the author, and prizes and endorsements the book had won. Our board, composed of seven liberal-to-moderate citizens, had a general predisposition to stand up to ``censorship'' and voted unanimously to uphold the superintendent's decision.

I was satisfied with the outcome but troubled by the nature of the debate. Although the complaint procedure didn't allow the parents to frame the issue in developmental terms, they were clearly questioning the wisdom of requiring a 14-year-old to read a book with such explicit and negative sexuality. Their question, it seemed to me, was ``When is the twig bent?'' The staff had avoided that complex and sensitive question entirely, smugly calling upon institutional prerogatives and expert literary judgment.

I wished at the time the board could have talked with experienced ninth-grade teachers who had taught the book and knew how students reacted to the sex and violence. But no teachers had been summoned to testify. The administrative staff wanted to determine what students should read, not on the basis of merit, but on the basis of its authority.

My discomfort was revived this month when I read Peter Carlson's story ``Banning Books in the Schools: When Teachers and Fundamentalists Clash, Children Get Burned,'' in the Washington Post (Jan. 4, 1987). Carlson chronicles a bitter book war between a prizewinning English faculty at Mowat Middle School in Panama City, Fla., and fundamentalist parents. The parents objected to ``I Am the Cheese,'' a teen-age thriller by Robert Cormier, saying it was morbid, depressing, and vulgar. The Mowat faculty, like the administrators in my district, sidestepped matters of value, age-appropriateness, and taste. They cited the fact that ``Cheese'' was named one of the ``best young-adult books of 1977'' by Newsweek and the School Library Journal.

As the Panama City controversy became more intense, the rhetoric thickened: The parents cast themselves as victims of the ``secular humanist conspiracy,'' and as witnesses for God, but did not say what the impact of the book might be on the children. The teachers cast themselves as martyrs in the cause of ``critical thinking skills'' and witnesses for free speech and the First Amendment. Taking refuge in educationist and legal arguments, they ignored the parent's basic value questions.

A school review committee in the Panama City system supported the teachers' approach when it ruled that ``I Am the Cheese'' was a ``high-interest young adult novel that encourages reading, critical thinking, and class discussion.'' But the committee only had the power to recommend. The next battle was with the superintendent. To influence his decision, the parents mobilized community support with florid language about obscenities, blasphemies, and ``sexual content that reads like Playboy and Penthouse.'' The teachers mobilized parents and students, stressing that the kids had been ``turned on to reading'' and that test scores had risen. One teacher even said the ``entire English program'' was riding on the decision.

In the end, the superintendent decided that ``it shall be the policy of this school district not to use instructional material which contains vulgar, obscene, or sexually explicit materials.'' He asserted this on the basis of his authority. The board backed him up. But he did not define obscenity, nor explain the difference between censorship and selection.

Panama City in 1986, like Montgomery County in 1973, did not grapple with the question: ``When is the twig bent?'' The teachers were not asked to explain why ``critical thinking skills'' could not be taught from classic novels. Nobody asked if there were modern novels that deal with deeper themes than sex and violence - some middle ground between the dated ``Silas Marner'' and modern teen novels that range from acne to adolescent sexual dilemmas in the late 20th century.

Nobody asked the complaining parents why they were making death threats to a few vulnerable English teachers while ignoring the nonstop debauchery of network television. Nobody asked the parents when children are old enough to handle modern realism.

There was one dissenting faculty member at Mowat. Sue Harrell signed the anti-book petition, although she knew the students were enjoying the book and also making impressive gains in reading and writing. ``They're great books, well written - but you have to be careful not to give students too much of the dark side of life.''

How much is too much? And when? Those questions need to be answered as we debate the values in schoolbooks.

The author is a policy analyst at Rand Corporation.

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