Sunday, April 15, 2007

More Inappropriate Books: When Do We Start Demanding Beauty, Modesty and Virtue?

From "Burlingame schools pull 8th-grade book from class" by Nanette Asimov, posted 4/12/07, at The San Francisco Chronicle

Citing his concern for "the morals of our society," Burlingame schools Superintendent Sonny Da Marto has stopped four eighth-grade classes from reading "Kaffir Boy," an award-winning memoir of growing up in a South African ghetto during apartheid.

Da Marto had banned the book from the Burlingame Intermediate School late last month when the 13- and 14-year-old students were nearly halfway through it, said their English teacher, Amelia Ramos, who was required to take the books back from 116 students.

"The kids were angry," Ramos said. "They were frustrated. They were appalled. And some were so upset that they couldn't muster any type of verbal response. They were very quiet."

A divided Burlingame Board of Education discussed the issue at a public meeting Tuesday night but declined to reverse Da Marto's decision.

The book has been challenged frequently since its publication in 1986 because of two graphic paragraphs describing men preparing to engage in anal sex with young boys. Although Ramos taught "Kaffir Boy" last year without incident, a parent complained this year -- and Da Marto agreed.

At the board meeting, Da Marto called "Kaffir Boy" an outstanding book, but said the paragraphs in question rendered it "inappropriate for this grade level." He said he would allow an abridged version in which the controversial words were removed.

In "Kaffir Boy," Mark Mathabane tells his brutal but ultimately triumphant story as one of nine children growing up in poverty during the 1960s and 1970s in a nation where the civil rights of black people were nonexistent. In South Africa, "kaffir" is a gross racial slur.

..."Kaffir Boy has been taught in eighth grade and in many high schools across the United States," Ramos said. "I wanted to challenge and motivate my students, to broaden their perspectives on life beyond the borders of Burlingame."

That strategy worked last year, when Ramos freely taught the memoir after it was approved by the Burlingame School District's "core literature committee" of parents, teachers, a librarian, a student and a school board member.

But in late March, Ramos received an e-mail from a parent complaining about the graphic scene.

On Page 72, readers find a description of child prostitution witnessed by Mathabane when he was younger than Ramos' students.

He runs away rather than participate in the sex-for-food arrangement with migrant workers that his starving companions agree to -- but not before he sees that "the boys, now completely naked, had begun lining up along the bunks." In two paragraphs, Mathabane uses the words "anuses," "Vaseline" and "penises" as he describes preparations for the worst.

Ramos forwarded the parent's e-mail to her principal, Ted Barone, who sent it to Da Marto. That very day, Ramos said, the superintendent ordered the class to stop reading the book.

"I'm very concerned about the morals of our society and that children who don't have support are not prepared emotionally to read it," the superintendent said at Tuesday's board meeting. "They're already exposed to violence and sex. As a public agency, are we going to contribute to it?" An abridged version of the book has been ordered, Barone told him.

...Board Vice President Michael Barber said, "I don't want to be the censor board."

Parent Kerbey Altmann said the banning decision had "echoes of a police state."

"I feel my right as a parent was usurped unceremoniously and quickly. There was not full disclosure," he said.

His son, eighth-grader Tom Altmann, asked the board how "shielding us from the scene in the book will benefit us."

No one spoke in favor of the ban.

Read the whole article.

Yes, I can see how one would think that refusing to teach a book to thirteen-year-olds that includes homosexual sodomy of five-year-olds is the equivalent of living in a police state. America: prudish, puritanical, book-burning, hidebound, sex-phobic police state.

In order to prove that America is intellectually advanced, open, tolerant, diverse, sophisticated, hip, modern, post-modern, and aware, we must teach texts that include profanity, obscenity, bestiality, and sodomy. It's an interesting cultural place we're in. The media and arts foist images of immorality on our children and when parents object to sexually graphic texts, the powers that be tell us that there's no reason to withhold texts that include material kids see everyday. That's a tricky strategy to befoul the culture and then claim the befouled culture as justification for exposure to inappropriate texts. We're idiots for tolerating this for so long. The ubiquity of vulgarity is no justification for the participation of public education in our cultural decline.

When do parents start demanding that art uphold and promote beauty or modesty or virtue or truth? When do we demand to know why the politically correct treatment of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation has assumed such a privileged place in text selection? When do we challenge the notion that virtually any criteria but a consideration of the graphic nature of sex and violence may be used when determining the suitability of a text. Since when is obscenity, profanity, extreme violence and graphic sex of no concern?

In all four years of high school, students probably read between 25-30 texts, give or take a few. Neither their intellectual and aesthetic experiences nor their constitutional rights are diminished or compromised by decisions to exclude texts that include graphic sex and violence or extreme profanity and obscenity. Even liberal teachers censor in that they reject texts due to content they find morally objectionable. For example, you find very few high schools and no middle schools teaching Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho, at least for now.

Several additional points: First, there are innumerable texts that teach lessons about resisting peer pressure including ones that don't address homosexual sodomy of five-year-olds, a premise that is irrelevant to the lives of most teens. Liberals often use relevance as their justification for teaching texts that include graphic sex and violence and vulgar language. And then when dissenters object to a text that includes graphic sex and violence, pointing out that, in addition, it is irrelevant to the lives of most teens, liberals will cite multiculturalism and diversity as their justification. Where there's a will to include provocative material, there's a justification.

Second, how adolescents feel about the exclusion of vulgar, sexual, and violent texts is irrelevant to sound decision-making. Adults make these decisions based on the, perhaps no longer valid, assumption that they are more mature, knowledgeable, and wise than teens. Adolescents are precluded from the decision-making process because they make up in rebelliousness what they lack in maturity, knowledge, and wisdom.

Third, if thirteen is not too young to introduce homosexual sodomy, is twelve? If twelve is okay, how about eleven? Is there any age at which homosexual sodomy ought not to be introduced?

Finally, in response to eighth-grader Tom Altman's question regarding how they benefit from being shielded from "this scene," I would say that those children who have not heard of homosexual sodomy will have their innocence preserved just a little longer; those boys and girls who find images of homosexual sodomy disturbing will be protected from having to entertain them in their imaginations; and those students who have managed to preserve their natural sense of modesty in an immodest culture will not have their school texts and classroom discussions undermining it.

Additionally, parents who want their children's innocence and modesty preserved will not have the institution to which they entrust their children violating that trust.