Changing curriculum isn't always censorship

Peter Schrag

October 21, 1993|By Peter Schrag

THIS year's survey of what the liberal organization People for the American Way describes as school censorship and "attacks on the freedom to learn" lists some familiar targets, from "Huck Finn" to "Catcher in the Rye" and "Lord of the Flies," from John Steinbeck to Maya Angelou, and contains the usual list of bizarre and occasionally troubling stories.

Most of the attacks, the report says, come from right-wing groups, particularly the religious right, and involve attempts to remove books and abolish curriculum that they regard as too partial to witches or secular humanism, or too permissive about teen-age sex and gay lifestyles, or simply for being too realistic about adolescent life.

In some cases, the attacks are just plain absurd: In one incident, a teacher was ordered to remove a picture of Santa Claus from a classroom wall because the letters could be transposed to spell Satan; in another, an Illinois school superintendent suppressed a story in a junior high school newspaper about his own arrest on drunken driving charges because, the superintendent said, it would reflect badly on the school district; in a third, an adaptation of Dracula, to be performed by a high school drama group, was bowdlerized to eliminate most references to blood.

In other cases, the attacks are truly troubling, particularly because of the stupidity and pusillanimity of school officials. Some have led to the firing of courageous teachers who tried to bring some real challenges to their students; all dampen intellectual challenges and narrow horizons in an already stultified intellectual atmosphere.

At the same time, however, the report's squishy criteria seriously undermine its conclusion, covering some 400 "incidents" during the 1992-93 academic year, that censorship efforts met with "remarkable success." When a school board orders a change in curriculum because of parental or community complaints, however reasonable, does that automatically make it a case of censorship? And does such a complaint automatically represent "attack" on public school curriculum?

States like Utah and Wyoming, for example, had no incidents reported, while California, which led the nation, had 29. But what that most reflects is the fact that Utah and Wyoming have relatively homogeneous (and small) populations and what are no doubt safely conservative school texts, while California has a widely diverse population with a florid (and sometimes weird) array of curriculum and learning materials.

More revealing, the researchers found that the most frequently challenged materials last year were self-esteem programs -- an elementary program called "Developing Understanding of Self and Others," another called "Quest" and, leading the list, "Pumsy in Search of Excellence." Pumsy is a blue dragon who is a little short of self-confidence because she doesn't breathe enough fire. She gets her life together through the power of positive thinking (once an Eisenhower-Readers Digest mass-cult staple).

For fundamentalist critics, the main problem with Pumsy is that she is too self-reliant -- there's a Pumsy anti-drug mantra ("I am me and I am OK") -- thereby setting an example that undermines the authority of teachers, parents and organized religion.

And yet, you don't have to be a right-winger to be a little uneasy about all this self-esteem stuff that's become the fad du jour in some circles -- not just because it mucks around with the heads of the kids, which is what most bothers the protesting parents, but also because it seems to put feel-good ahead of do-good. And given the way school curriculum gets altered on the way down from the planners to the classroom, there's no way to tell what's being done with even the best materials.

So when conservatives complain (as they did, for example, in one Florida district) that self-esteem programs like Pumsy are morally open-ended and thus "undermine parents' teaching of right and wrong," they may be articulating the concerns of a lot of people who are not so crazy.

At a time when the schools are supposed to be upgrading their standards, the last thing they need is to further reinforce the idea (which many already do far too much) that performance (or honesty or compassion) is secondary as long as you feel OK about yourself.

But the most important point that People for the American Way misses year after year is that in a democracy, school programs, by their very nature, reflect a dialogue among professionals, parents and the values of the community.

That dialogue is not always polite or enlightened, but the fact that school authorities sometimes side with right-wing critics (and occasionally with left-wing critics) in changing or abolishing curriculum may reflect as much on the poor judgment -- academic or political -- of the district in adopting those materials as it does on the evil "censors."

Peter Schrag, a California journalist, wrote this for McClatchy News Service.

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