Parents Behaving Badly: Censorship

Posted on May 22, 2020


Today’s post focuses on an attempt at censorship of a novel by Christian parents.

First of all, let me say that I appreciate and encourage parents to know–and even to read along and discuss–any text in school assignments their children bring home.

Second of all, I support civil discourse on any subject, at all times. There is NO subject, person, or group I will deny–as a human being–but certainly, as a teacher, there is nothing about a student’s school experience that is off-limits for parents to discuss with me. I appreciate parents being active participants in their child’s education. All that’s required is that a parent contact me and open the discussion.

I first learned that there was a parent concern–NOT from a parent contacting me to discuss their concern–but from the International Baccalaureate administrator. I note the disrespect conveyed by opening the discussion this way and wonder at the level of trust parents put in me: fortunately, I am not like the god of the Bible who punishes the children–and even the generations–for a parent’s impertinent act. I am committed to nurture and care for all children to the best of my ability, no matter how their parents behave.

When I met with the administrator, I learned that a few parents were complaining about a novel their children were assigned in the college-level, IB English (literature) course.

The novel was Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko, described, on the publisher’s website, like this:

Almost forty years since its original publication, Ceremony remains one of the most profound and moving works of Native American literature—a novel that is itself a ceremony of healing. Masterfully written, filled with the somber majesty of Pueblo myth, Ceremony is a work of enduring power.

The main character of the novel, Tayo, joins the United States military and is deployed into battle during WWII, where he survives the Bataan Death March. His quest is to engage in the process of healing from the grief, loss, and PTSD his military service and his experiences with racism in America have caused.

I’m sure it’s obvious to my readers what the problem is.

Just kidding. Unless you noticed that the novelist is not White. Of course, the parents never mentioned race; they mentioned religion, Christianity, where racism often hides.

The administrator’s response to the parents embodied the IB philosophy of inquiry.

He asked, “Have you read the book?”

Raise your hand if you think the parents had read the novel!

Did you raise your hand? Aw, I’m sorry! Thank you for playing!

They had not read the novel. They had opened the book, read a passage they found troubling, texted the passage to other parents, and decided together to complain.

The administrator explained that we could all get together to discuss the complaint–after the parents had read the novel.

Irony of Ironies!

Me, freshly-baptized, 1983

These parents either did not know or had forgotten that before I went to uni to study education, I was an evangelical Christian, studying to become clergy. My Bible literacy level, after a teen-age conversion and a mid-twenties de-conversion, is quite high. Besides the fact that they were arguing from ignorance of the novel, the fact that they were using a Bible-based religion to justify a call to censor the book showed that they were also ignorant of the Bible.

My Response

I talked about the situation with the students and explained that they may not know this, but if one did the same sort of “cherry-picking” of passages from the Bible, one would be hard-pressed to find enough evidence to convince readers that Silko’s novel could even begin to compare with the horrors described in the Bible.

For starters, Silko writes about ONE war. When I try to estimate the number of wars depicted in the Bible, I can’t even begin to guess. I suggested that any parent who was serious about this complaint could fill in a table with “offending” passages from the novel, and I would place Biblical passages in a column alongside, and we could talk about the two texts in comparison.

So many parents were eager to take on the challenge that I was amazed!

Just kidding! That didn’t happen.

What Did Happen?

I worked with the administrator and the teacher of the second year of the course to draft a policy that made it clear that if a complaint is to be raised about a text, the text must be read FIRST, and that the place to start when a parent is concerned about anything in any class is with the teacher. Complaining to the administrator simply adds more steps to the process, making it unnecessarily longer, since, ultimately, what’s going to happen is that parents TALK to the teacher in a civil manner about their concerns, no matter their basis.

The novel remained in the syllabus. It was on the list of texts that had been approved by the IB organization, which meant that high school students around the world were studying it, with no ill effects.

I studied the novel as an undergrad at EMU, and of all the novels I read with a major in English and American Language and Literature, this is the book that had–and continues to have–the most influence on me. Tayo’s journey of healing gives readers hope that they, too, can find a way to heal from their own traumas. In today’s “trauma-informed” school environment, giving students models of healing is like throwing a drowning person a lifeline. Ceremony was a lifeline for me, which is why I wanted to share it with my students, besides the fact that as a work of art, it is simply some of the most beautiful writing one can ever read.

Experiences like the ones above illustrate the tension between parents’ desire that their children have the “best” education, but who want to control the information they will encounter in English class. The same parents provided their children with unlimited access to the cell phones, internet, television, and popular movies of the dominant culture.

One reason why an IB education is desirable is because it allows high school students to do the kind of work done in the college classroom, with direct instruction in the learning processes that will allow them to succeed–in the IB program at high school and later at uni–or any future course of study.

To my amazement and joy, it became routine for me to coach a teen through the processes to read, analyze, discuss, and write about texts, both critically and creatively–and to produce presentations and performances that were more sophisticated than anything required of me in my first two years in college.

The IB mission states:

The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.

These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.

Parents who tried to censor texts in IB courses seemed to reject the central tenets of the program. Not only that, public schools serve all students, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu, and atheist; decisions about curriculum are made by education professionals and should not be influenced by parents who wish to limit information to that which perpetuates a particular religious viewpoint.

A final note: I remind Christian parents of the “Garden of Eden” story from the book of Genesis in the Bible, as it relates to the power of temptation. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was tempting because it was forbidden. Parents who object too vociferously to certain media may unintentionally fan the flames of their children’s curiosity.

lisa eddy is a writer, researcher, educator, advocate,  musician, and gardener.

On Twitter: @lisa_eddy

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