Updated: April 20, 2013 6:27AM
The simplicity of the censor cannot be overstated. There is the offending book, movie, painting, song, statue, photo, whatever. There is the supposedly vulnerable group that theoretically will suffer some kind of vague harm from the offending book, movie, painting, song, etc. For many years that vulnerable group was women and children — the traditional protected class.
Just keep the offending works away from the vulnerable group, the censor thinks, and all will be well. Simple as pie.
But it never works like that.
In recent decades, women have finally escaped the censor’s gaze — aided no doubt by New York Mayor Jimmy Walker’s timeless quip from book ban fights of the 1920s: “No woman was ever ruined by a book.” We don’t talk now about the snowy purity of our wives and daughters being corroded by smut.
Which leaves us with children. Educators agonized over what is “appropriate” for various ages and grades, itself a polite fiction, since kids vary so widely, and are pretty good at deciding what they want to read. But at least there is a certain rationality there. No point in giving the second-graders “Anna Karenina ” — they couldn’t read it and wouldn’t get much out of it if they could.
This process goes on in every school — teachers decide what to teach their children based on what they are ready to learn.
But invariably the censor’s simplicity enters the picture, a wrench falling into the educational mechanism. Such as last week, when the Chicago Public Schools — no stranger to humiliation — stood on tip-toe to reach for a fresh embarrassment over Marjane Satrapi’s award-winning, beloved graphic novel of her Iran girlhood, Persepolis.
Exactly what happened is a matter of dispute. The brouhaha started Thursday when the principal at Lane Tech High School told staffers he had been ordered to remove the book from the school’s library and classrooms. The subsequent outcry brought the clarification that it was not being banned from all libraries and all classrooms, just yanked from the seventh-grade curriculum because of “graphic language and images,” according to CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.
“There was never a ban on the book,” Robyn Ziegler, CPS director of media affairs said in an email. “We simply intended to remove this book from the recommended book list for seventh- grade curriculum.”
If that’s the case, they certainly did a ham-handed job of it. I wondered what sparked the action — whatever the action was — to be taken at this particular moment.
According to Ziegler, one principal at one school complained. Which led other CPS administrators to look at the book, which has been translated into 40 languages, and fixate on a few panels of the cartoon novel where characters are tortured — whipped, burned with irons, in the same simple black and white pen drawings that, while powerful in the narrative are, as images, in our computer-generated era, about as jarring as snowflakes. As is habitual with censors, the quality of the book, its intelligent message of individualism in the face of oppression, how that might benefit any child who deigned to read it, was completely lost on the CPS brass which — and this is the most pathetic part — thought they were solving their problem with this one principal by yanking the book, oblivious to the fact that they’d be creating a far bigger problem for themselves.
The entire premise — children should not experience anything that upsets them — is a lie based on nothing. As anyone knows who ever cried when Old Yeller dies, or looked up in shock as Sherlock Holmes goes over the Reichenbach Falls, some of the most profoundly alive moments in childhood come when you read something that really rattles you. That’s the point of education. Sure, there’s a problematic word repeated over and over again in “Huckleberry Finn.” But those who would solve that problem by not reading the book at all are doing the moral equivalent of coping with the horrors of the Holocaust by having your European history class simply jump from 1939 to 1946.
Whether this particular book is included on the reading list is not as worrisome as the fumble-thumbed way removing it was done. Here you have students, too many of whom with relatives — brothers, sisters, parents — who were shot before their eyes. And yet this sweet and thoughtful book that might help them make sense of their lives is plucked away by unthinking bureaucrats only trying to stifle complaint. Clumsy, at best, and brainless at worst. I’m sure there were good intentions at work, but if anything is learned here, the lesson should be to add books carefully to student reading lists, and to remove them even more carefully. That’s a manageable lesson, right? And isn’t that what this is supposedly all about, education? Sometimes educators seem to forget that.