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Public education under siege.

When people are overwhelmed by rapid changes, the human impulse to censor certain types of information skyrockets. Economic uncertainty, social upheaval, and political changes are especially threatening to those who cling to traditional social and religious values. During the past decade, Americans have experienced all these changes and more --not just in the United States but in the world at large. Parents, in particular, are rightly concerned about what the future holds for their children.

Unfortunately, a significant number of parents are reacting to their fears by trying to stop or slow the pace of change. They believe that children should be "protected" from (read: kept completely ignorant of) many crucial social problems. They seem to actually believe that denying the existence of certain realities will make them go away--and then their children will be safe.

For these crusaders, the public schools are a first-line and easily accessible focus for their fears, since they are supported by public tax dollars and are entrusted with the education of young children. Paradoxically, censorship--and fear of censorship--in public schools is particularly harmful because it results in the opposite of true education and learning. It is through the process of acquiring knowledge that students can learn to be discriminating--to make decisions rationally and logically in light of the evidence. By suppressing all materials containing ideas or themes with which they do not agree, censors produce a sterile conformity and a lack of intellectual and emotional growth in students. Without the capacity for critical thinking, young people are completely unprepared to function as members of a democratic society.

This situation would be serious enough if it were only information about harsh realities that the censors wanted to eliminate from public-school curricula and libraries. But it's much worse than that. In the classic manner of zealots, these people can discern evil in almost anything. In fact, if we were to eliminate all the subjects and materials to which they have objected, there would be little left to teach. Their paranoia, coupled with a new level of political sophistication, has enabled them to hold many public-school districts hostage in their quest to impose a narrow view of life on all our children. When parents attempt to remove materials not just from their own child but from all children in the public schools, the issue is no longer choice: it is censorship.

Challenges are directed at award-winning curriculum materials, highly regarded library books, Halloween programs, displays of mythical creatures, approved teaching methods, book lists, videotapes, recordings, and magazines. In far too many cases, these demands are coming from--or supported by--a teacher or administrator.

Complainant rhetoric is nearly identical from state to state. The most frequently leveled accusations are that targeted materials promote satanism and the occult; that they include "obscene, vulgar, or offensive" words or situations; that they frighten or traumatize children; that they include "inappropriate" sexual references or information, are anti-Christian, or undermine parental authority. Challenges run the gamut: oral recitation, writing assignments, students' speech (through school newspapers and theatrical presentations), and teaching materials (particularly Performance Outcome-Based Education) are all under fire.

The move to Outcome-Based Education is encountering particularly hysterical opposition nationwide. With Phyllis Schlafly as a major player, a fantastic array of accusations is being lodged against OBE, including charges that it is an undercover conspiracy ("a vast social experiment") to brainwash children; that it eliminates all objective standards; that it stifles individual achievement; and that it establishes lower standards. On the contrary, this education reform proposal, already being implemented in some states, is based on the proposition that learning goals must be raised and expectations of student achievement must be increased.

Under a restructured educational system, students will be required to prove mastery of the knowledge and skills inherent in specific educational goals. To prepare our students for success in the next century, we must move toward an assessment system in which students can demonstrate their skills in a real-world context by applying their knowledge to actual situations rather than by using standardized, multiple-choice tests which measure memorization instead of complex thinking and problem solving. (After all, real life is not a standardized multiple-choice test.)

Countless attacks are being leveled at AIDS-prevention and sex education in public schools across the country. Within recent years, a new tactic has been introduced on this front: persistent efforts to replace comprehensive sex education with narrow, educationally faulty, often sectarian-inspired, abstinence-only curricula. These programs--with such names as "Sex Respect" and "Teen Aid"--typically omit critical information about birth control and HIV/AIDS, contain outright medical misinformation, grossly overstate the supposed physical and psychological dangers of abortion, often have a religious bent, and have been roundly criticized by health and sexuality educators across the nation. For clues as to how these crusaders can rationalize withholding important information, thus putting the lives of young people at risk, we have only to look at the origins of their so-called philosophy.

Today's pro-censorship forces are a combination of the old right-wing establishment and many more newly organized groups, ranging in ideology from ultraconservative to reactionary. It is no secret that such national organizations as Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority (renamed the Liberty Foundation), Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, the Pro-Family Forum, the Heritage Foundation, the Free Congress Research Foundation, and Concerned Women of America promote a right-wing religious and political agenda in public schools nationwide. Increasingly in recent years, a toppriority action item on that agenda has been the eventual elimination of public education altogether.

In the meantime, many groups--including those calling themsevles Christian Reconstructionist--have publicly avowed that they are on a holy mission to infiltrate the nation's school boards and turn them back to God. They believe that public schools are directly responsible for lower SAT scores, drug use, violence, crime rates, "declines in morality," and teenage pregnancy, ad infinitum. They want to rewrite history to reflect their interpretation of the past and to deny scientific theory by insisting that biblical creationism be included in science classes.

Numerous studies show that efforts to censor school materials are successful in about one-third of the cases. As a result of this hysterical climate, many teachers, librarians, and administrators are engaging in self-censorship. Librarians don't order possibly controversial books, school administrators censor student publications, and textbook publishers remove controversial materials from reading and science texts. Library media specialists report treating potentially controversial material differently than other material.

Case law regarding the First Amendment's application to minors in public-school settings is mixed. In general, the courts have affirmed that both public-school teachers and students do retain First Amendment rights. However, in the public-school setting, some court rulings have placed certain qualifications upon those rights. Unfortunately, in recent years, several higher court decisions have signalled an apparent willingness to impose greater restrictions.

As long as public schools operate in our pluralistic society, challenges and confrontations are inevitable if we are to meet our responsibility to provide students with an education that teaches them to question, explore, analyze, and evaluate. We must convey to our children the legacy of diversity, tolerance, and freedom upon which this country was founded. We must keep them free to read and encourage them to examine and challenge new ideas. We must teach them to seek out enough knowledge to ask intelligent questions. In short, we must teach them to think for themselves. And that, of course, is exactly what these people don't want their children--or anybody's children--to learn.

Since I first became involved in this issue over 10 years ago through my work with the Washington Coalition Against Censorship, the scope and the implications of the problem have steadily compounded. It's past time for rationalists and freethinkers, whether or not they are parents, to get involved in this crucial battle. I'm convinced that the future of democracy literally depends upon the outcome.
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Author:Dority, Barbara
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Jul 1, 1994
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