Banned in Bethesda

December 18, 2005

By any standard, Schindler's List is a terrific film. It's a moving account of Oskar Schindler's efforts to save Jews from Auschwitz by employing them in his factory. Critics have lauded it as the finest movie ever made about the Holocaust. The American Film Institute named it as one of the top 10 films of all time. But you won't find Montgomery County high school seniors watching it in class.

That's because they can't. Schindler's List is rated R. And under a new policy, high schools can't show R-rated movies, nor can middle schools show any movie rated PG-13. Not if it's a classic like Schindler's List. Not if a teacher decides it would enhance a lesson. Not even if all the parents in the county signed permission slips saying it's perfectly fine by them.

Such a policy defies common sense. And when it's imposed by Montgomery County Public Schools, one of Maryland's most progressive and well-regarded systems, it seems all the more foolish. What's next? Is MacBeth out? Othello? Hamlet? All great plays by William Shakespeare - and all made into movies rated R.

School administrators say their decision was not in reaction to any criticism, but a concern that movies should only be used when appropriate - and that means age-appropriate, too. While we share that concern (lesson plans in June's waning days are notorious for their DVD content), why make it absolute? Surely, teachers can recognize when a movie has educational value - and when permission slips should be sent home.

This isn't the first time classroom content has come under scrutiny in Montgomery County. The system was sued over its sex education curriculum, which it subsequently withdrew last spring. A spokesman says the decisions over movies and sex ed are unrelated, though it's not hard to imagine the lawsuit having a chilling effect.

But that's when we rely on our public schools to stand up for educational principles. The distance between banning classic movies and banning classic books is not long. In school systems across the country, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is one of the most frequently banned classics, but not in Montgomery County - unless, of course, it's the 1992 version starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. That movie was rated R.

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