Thursday, 14 June 2012

Censorship and school libraries

Thanks to a friend's FB post, I stumbled on an interesting site chock full of survey data tracked over time and easily sliced and diced according to different demographic factors: link. But here's a survey issue that's often given me a bit of pause: "Books that contain dangerous ideas should be banned from public school libraries". The survey results make it clear that most disagree with this. And the more educated one is, the less likely one is to agree with it. But this alleged position of opposing book banning strikes me as a bit disingenuous. Of course, I don't agree that all books with "dangerous" ideas should be banned from public school libraries, but who does? But surely some books containing dangerous ideas should be banned in public school libraries.

It's a bit unclear whether the statement as posed in the survey is intended as a universal or existential claim, but I think if the former nobody would agree and if the latter everyone should agree. For example, I consider myself a strong proponent of free speech, I don't think there's much the government should be censoring, and I certainly believe in having students consider radical or dangerous ideas that might shake their world view. Nonetheless,if I were to learn that the library in my kids' elementary school had had The Protocols of the Elders of Zion or anti-gay pamphlets or bomb-making instructions or tomes devoted to explicit sexual descriptions written for an adult audience I'd have objected and argued for their immediate removal. Does anyone think that there should be no content restriction of any sort on public school libraries -- they'd be okay with the library in the school serving kids they care about carrying Mein Kampf or other racist and obscene drivel?

So, it's interesting when people denounce the prudes who want books removed from a school library (or those answering this survey question with a "disagree"). While it's almost always the case that I disagree with the "prudes" about whether certain material is appropriate for school age kids, (the cases that make the news usually involve silliness like banning Harry Potter or some such), this is a disagreement about where to draw the line rather than a question of whether to draw a line at all. Nonetheless in these cases opponents of the would be book-removers typically denigrate their opponents as "book burners" or "pro censorship" as if they themselves would draw the line at nothing at all when it comes to school library contents. I find that a little bit hard to believe. I think those discussions would be more useful if they involved discussions about what sort of material is appropriate for public school students or reasonably funded with taxpayer money rather than appearing to invoke the implausible principle that no book should ever be banned from a public school library under any circumstance.