Perhaps it’s because I’m a free-speech advocate. Perhaps it’s because I think we ought to talk about our problems, not sweep them under the rug. But I cringe when I hear that a public school has banned or restricted access to a book.
It happened earlier this summer in neighboring Wake County, where East Wake High School removed Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” from reading lists. Also, the school required any teacher using Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” to assign it as alternative reading. That means a student doesn’t have to read the book if his parents object.
The high school acted after a parent complained that the novels contain objectionable material, including depictions of rape. I agree that rape is a horrifying subject, but it happens, even on the college campuses where many East Wake parents will send their daughters.
So doesn’t it make more sense to talk about rape in a classroom setting, with an adult leading the discussion? Sebastian Shipp, a principal at East Wake, thinks so. “It’s much more preferable to have these challenging works of literature discussed in the classroom where you can have an experienced educator to lead discussions,” he told The News & Observer.
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Instead, the Wake County high school will leave “The Bluest Eye” and “The Color Purple” on its library shelves. That means students can read them but not discuss them with an adult. And all because a parent complained. I don’t get it.
By the way, the Johnston County Board of Education has, on occasion, done East Wake High School one better, not only removing books from classrooms but also from library shelves. Like East Wake, our school board acted after a parent complained. Again, I wonder how it’s possible for one parent to make policy for a whole school or school system.
No academic freedom?
The book ban at a Wake County high school made me think too about teacher tenure and the protections it’s supposed to afford.
Tenure in this country was born partly to protect teachers from arbitrary dismissal. As the N.C. School Boards Association noted recently in a position paper on tenure, teachers in the late 19th century found themselves being fired for a number of wrong reasons, including “administrators playing favorites” and “powerful parents objecting to their child receiving poor grades.” Other reasons spoke to a teacher’s right to teach as he or she saw fit. School boards were dismissing teachers because they objected to “a teacher’s lessons plans, teaching method or viewpoint,” the School Boards Association noted.
That was more than a hundred years ago. Teacher tenure didn’t arrive in North Carolina until 1971, and for better or worse, it doesn’t give teachers the right to teach as they see fit. The Wake County book ban is proof of that: Teachers were using a couple of books, but now they can’t because a parent complained and the school’s administration sided with the parent.
I’m not sure what I think about that. On the one hand, I think schools should guarantee their teachers some freedom; after all, they’re the ones with degrees in education, which suggests they have a clue about what they’re doing.
On the other hand, it’s my child – and my tax money – in that classroom, and I’d like to think I have the right to have a say in what goes on in that classroom. I also wonder, in a state with a top-down curriculum, how much academic freedom teachers really need.
But what’s the point of tenure if it doesn’t guarantee a teacher academic freedom, doesn’t protect her from a principal or school board overruling her “lesson plans, teaching method or viewpoint”?
In North Carolina over the past couple of years, much has been made about tenure. I wish academic freedom was part of the debate.
A housekeeping matter
I need your help in making sure your news gets in the paper when you need it to.
That happens most of the time, with notices of church barbecues and Kiwanis Club pancake suppers arriving in plenty of time to make a print edition or two. But on some occasions, the announcement arrives too late. That happened recently, when notice of a church yard sale scheduled for that Saturday arrived in my in-box on that Tuesday, a day after we had put our Wednesday paper to bed.
When that happens, we can put the announcement on our website and on our Facebook page, but the church, civic club or what-have-you misses the wide distribution of our print edition.
So do me a favor: Email your announcement at least two weeks in advance – three is preferable – so we can get it into the paper at least a couple of times before the event. I’d appreciate it, because I welcome your news and want to get it into the paper. That email address, by the way, is firstname.lastname@example.org.