Censorship of “Sexually Explicit” Content in Classic Works of Literature

For the last three days, the school where I teach has been closed due to snow. While I have indeed gone sledding, made snow angels, napped, taken my dogs for snowy walks, and even taken two snowy runs, I have also spent the last three days crafting a letter to the Virginia Department of Education regarding an insidious policy up for discussion later this month–a policy similar to legislation already vetoed by our governor, but that pro-censorship groups are attempting to push through the VDOE as a sort of backdoor approach. Below, read my take on the issue, and if you live in Virginia, please join me in writing to:

Emily Webb, Director for Board Relations

P.O. Box 2120

Richmond, VA 23218-2120.

Better yet, if you are free at 9:00 on the morning of Thursday, January 26, attend the public hearing on this issue.

Dear Ms. Webb:

I am writing to make you aware of my strong opposition to policies reminiscent of House Bill 516, wisely vetoed by Governor McAuliffe, and currently up for discussion by the Virginia Department of Education, specifically the potential requirement that schools “provide policies on the use of sexually explicit instructional materials to parents or guardians with the copy of the syllabus for each high school course and to include a notice to parents identifying any sexually explicit materials that may be included in the course, the textbook, or any supplemental instructional materials.” While I will be unable to attend the public hearing on this matter, as I, like many of my equally concerned fellow educators, will be on the frontlines in the classroom with my students that morning, it is very important to me that my voice on this matter be heard.

Let us give our students the opportunity to learn about, discuss, and study the effects of the darkness and the light in a safe, nurturing space where they can learn how to handle them in a healthy, productive manner. Do not let them leave the public school system without the tools needed to cope with what lies beyond the doors of their high school.

Though the language reproduced above seems innocent enough, it could very easily act as a catalyst for future censorship that would prove detrimental to our schools. I have been in the classroom for eleven years, and hold a Master’s degree—during the earning of which I wrote a lengthy, research-based paper on the problem of unwarranted censorship (as most censorship is). The regulations and policies that will be discussed on January 26 border on dangerous and senseless censorship (as most censorship is) that in no way helps, and in fact hinders, the intellectual, emotional, and moral progress of our young people. Censoring the literature they read based on minimal “sexually explicit” or otherwise “offensive” content or language—that may appear on merely one page of a much larger work—unnecessarily shelters students from reality and does not help prepare them to function as well-rounded, productive adults in the real world. Furthermore, the interpretation of “sexually explicit” is far too broad and subjective to be of any real value, and would allow for many relevant, artistic, classic, and important works to be excluded from a child’s education.

Censorship stems from fear, and is rarely anything more than a bid for control. Tell me–what are we afraid of, and what are we trying to control? The answer to the first question is perhaps less insidious than the answer to the second.

The intellectual development of our students lies primarily in their ability to think critically. One of the most effective means of teaching children how to think for themselves is to present them with various viewpoints, circumstances, situations, cultures, and people different from their own and from themselves—to help them learn to ask the right questions, see problems from various perspectives, and consider other points of view. Based on the policy under consideration, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men would likely be considered for banning based merely on the brief mentions of cat houses and the fact that Lennie’s innocent petting of a dress was once mistaken for attempted rape. Many years, this is the only book some of my weaker students actually read—and love. Their focus does not rest on the cat houses or the non-rape; it rests on the characters, the emotions, the situations. They love to discuss the ideas of companionship versus loneliness, tolerance of “the other,” friendship, and sacrifice that the book brings up. The infinitesimal role of sex in this novella does not distract or demoralize them; instead, books like this encourage students to think about multiple perspectives, and expose them to time periods in which they can never live, places they may never visit, and people they are likely never to meet.

Only open, uncensored access to literature and information can help combat the creeping cloud of thought control I see on the horizon. We can take a step into its shadow by allowing these policies to move forward, or a step into the sunshine of enlightenment by adopting more progressive and productive policies regarding the literature read in our classrooms.

Books like this broaden their understanding of the world, and the human condition—thus helping to make them into more adept thinkers, able to consider different ideas and viewpoints, as well as to ask meaningful, insightful questions. What a shame it would be to deprive students of that opportunity simply because a cat house or glove filled with Vaseline is mentioned in passing once or twice in the course of the story.
In addition to helping children develop intellectually, reading books that this policy would likely deem inappropriate, such as The Great Gatsby for its (extremely subtly implied) sexual content, helps students develop emotionally. Reading books that contain challenging content matter exposes children to topics they will encounter in their adult lives, and gives them a safe, nurturing, and neutral place to discuss these topics before they must handle them on their own in the real world. Giving students the capacity to imagine what it would feel like to be in the multiple moral dilemmas Nick Carraway faces or to be so lovesick so as to engage in criminal activity just to get the girl, as is the case with Jay Gatsby, gives them an emotional foundation on which to stand when they themselves face real-life difficult decisions and moral dilemmas. In addition, asking them to put themselves into the shoes of various characters in these novels helps them develop the ability to sympathize and empathize, thus fostering in them a sense of compassion and emotional intelligence that I would rather nurture with “provocative” literature than stunt with senseless censorship.

I can think of very few instances in history when censorship has ever been looked on in a positive light or yielded positive results. In fact, quite the opposite: Censorship stems from fear, and is rarely anything more than a bid for control. Tell me–what are we afraid of, and what are we trying to control? The answer to the first question is perhaps less insidious than the answer to the second.

Literature mirrors life, and life is as full of gender discrimination, sexism, lust, and other depravities as it is of gentleness, love, acceptance, justice, and goodness. How can we teach true self-sacrifice without also teaching its opposite, selfishness? How can we teach the value of true loyalty without also teaching infidelity?

As a final point, I will simply say that if every work of literature that contains a scene, a sentence, or a situation that someone somewhere in the state might construe as “sexually explicit” were removed from the classroom, I cannot imagine what would remain at the secondary level. I would be hard-pressed to find a single novel that is devoid of any hint of sex. Literature mirrors life, and life is as full of gender discrimination, sexism, lust, and other depravities as it is of gentleness, love, acceptance, justice, and goodness. How can we teach true self-sacrifice without also teaching its opposite, selfishness? How can we teach the value of true loyalty without also teaching infidelity? Students need the emotional intelligence, the moral basis, and the critical thinking skills to face all of these issues and more. Let us give our students the opportunity to learn about, discuss, and study the effects of the darkness and the light in a safe, nurturing space where they can learn how to handle them in a healthy, productive manner. Do not let them leave the public school system without the tools needed to cope with what lies beyond the doors of their high school. If we do, we—and they–will certainly have more to fear than the mature content—expressed in prose so poetic, I would grieve to see my students deprived of it–of Their Eyes Were Watching God or Romeo and Juliet. We do our students no favors, no kindness, by shielding them from real life issues and experiences presented in works like these.

I ask you not only as an experienced educator, but also as a devoted aunt, a writer, and a concerned community member to please block these pro-censorship policies that will only foster the preponderance of ignorance and bigotry trying to take hold in our world. Now, more than ever, a student’s ability to think for himself or herself is critical, and limiting a student’s access to literature in any way only limits his or her capacity for compassion and critical thinking. Only open, uncensored access to literature and information can help combat the creeping cloud of thought control I see on the horizon. We can take a step into its shadow by allowing these policies to move forward, or a step into the sunshine of enlightenment by adopting more progressive and productive policies regarding the literature read in our classrooms.

Sincerely,

Amanda S. Creasey

 

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