Burn a book, barbecue a brain -- the teacher's lament

March 26, 1995|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

I went the other day to a meeting of several hundred school teachers and librarians, all with smiles on their faces and hearts full of love for children. It chilled my blood.

The "State of Maryland International Reading Association Council" was holding its 23rd annual conference. There, I had an intense conversation, a bit less than two hours, with a group of experienced teachers from five Maryland counties, four of them right around Baltimore.

Without a dissenting voice, they told me that today the complaint of just one parent can and usually will cause a book to be withdrawn from classroom work or libraries. Even scarier: They unanimously reported that, because of this modern book-burning frenzy, they and their colleagues work in circumstances that they called anxiety, but that struck me as chronic, imagination-chilling fear.

In most cases, they reported, the objections are on sectarian grounds. The attacks, they said, come often from religious fundamentalists who seek to ban any book with even the remote suggestion of the mysterious, the mystic or the sexual. But objections also focus on colloquial language that is deemed, mostly out of context, to be offensive to some segment of society. And then there is anti-religious zealotry, which seeks to drive out any book with spiritual reference or symbolism.

Apply all those restrictions, and you are left with pabulum ` or, more likely, virtual illiteracy.

Most of the complainers, these people say, have never read the books they oppose, and express no interest in doing so. Can you imagine children's literature without witches? You had better, I was told, since that is one absolute prohibition of the book-banners, along with trolls, fairies and, of course, angels. One parent was quoted as saying, simply: " We don't want you teaching witchcraft in the school."

"Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," of course, is a textbook for Witchcraft 101.

The object of all truly serious education is to try to teach people to think. Trying to teach people what to think is not education but politics, it is propaganda. To try to teach them what not to think is in fact to discipline them not to think at all.

From all my life in writing and editing and reading and dealing with people, some of them of high minds and great accomplishments, one impression about books and reading stands out above all others:

Everyone I can remember talking with who is truly accomplished in any manner involving the mind remembers the private discovery of books as a kind of magical epiphany. One great man put it like this: "I was about seven or eight, and suddenly I knew I was forever free." Another person, today a formidable intellectual leader, said: "The day it came to me, I went to bed knowing I would never be lonely for smart company again."

To the extent that I have heard or read of the childhood experiences of people who have made great moral and intellectual contributions to their world, all were drawn to books considered much too grown up for them.

Bruno Bettelheim, one of the tiny handful of the greatest psychiatrists to have worked closely with children, wrote a book that should delight anyone who yearns to understand either literature or children: "The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales" (Knopf. 352 pages. $27 hardcover, $12 paper).

The book celebrates classic fairy tales, full of ogres, monsters, cannibalistic giants, trolls, witches, mad kings, et al. His powerful argument, vastly oversimplified: To grow a healthy sense of self-worth and moral obligation, every child must experience and come to terms with the ugly, brutal and inevitable evils that plague real life.

That can be accomplished mainly, perhaps only, by the child's "spinning out daydreams -- ruminating, rearranging, and fantasizing about suitable story elements in response to unconscious pressures. By doing this, the child fits unconscious content into conscious fantasies, which then enable him to deal with that content. It is here that fairy tales have unequaled value."

Can that be hard to understand? Not, I would argue, to anyone who has given a serious hour's attention to the development of self-confidence.

The teachers I heard from are responsible, intelligent people with deep caring about education and for children, their own and those they teach. The most imaginative ones reported that they work in a state of true fear that if they don't immediately capitulate to every parent complaint about a book, their careers will be damaged or destroyed. Others are simply numbed into silence. All of them say that on the book banning issue they get no significant support from school administrators or school boards.

The problem of what to do about this book-banning reign of terror is difficult. My informants say there is no statewide or national educational group that is working on it. There might be hope in some sort of master approved list that could gain legitimacy from the concerted authority of library associations and teachers' groups and educational authorities. Even that has problems: If exclusive licensing of books worked, that could turn out to be as corrupting and offensive as banning them.

What's really needed is courage and imagination, from those administrators and boards, and from everybody in a position of influence who gives a damn about the courage and imagination of the next generation -- and those who come after.

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