February 09, 2006

Bad at getting back into Blog

     So yes, I've been bad about getting back into the whole blog thing. Oh well. You guys probably have something better to do anyway (or so I'd hope), but this is all beside the point. Now, if this were a normal day I'd put up a rant about the current state of XBox (namely that the 360 can suck my nuts), but really I don't have the energy, considering that I've already brought up the interview already. Then I kind of thought abot doing a rant on intelligent design, but I realized that not only is it old hat, but there's practically no point in fighting about a belief. I read an entire article that seemed like it was arguing in favor of intelligent design, only to have it veer away the third page in to a sudden "But actually, as I was researching I realized that intelligent design was just another bullshit excuse to make people believe that people are somehow different than animals in order to instill a sense of morality into them." Which basically made the entire article a moot point.

In other news I updated scuzzstuff with two new games, and I'm on the prowl for more because for the first time in months, the number of hits scuzzstuff received has exceeded all the other sections of my website. In celebration, I will try and get in two updates per week for the next couple weeks. Wish me luck (I'll try and squeeze in some blog, but I don't know how well that will work out).

Anyway, in order to give some substance I'm going to post my research paper. Here, enjoy:

A Case for Self-Censorship:
The right to ignore what you disagree with.

     When children go off to school, the parents leave them in the hands of the teachers. The teachers, who have spent many years in training and many of whom have spent many years teaching, take the children and teach them to the best of their ability. Behind them are other teachers, administrators, and years of research into how children learn best. And yet, despite all of this, some parents feel anxiety over the things the schools teach. Books of all kinds are part of the foundation of this education, but increasingly, parents disagree with the books teachers choose to teach. Even beyond just disagreeing with the assignment, some parents choose to go so far as to attempt to ban these books from curriculums and public library bookshelves. Throughout the years, some books have been singled out repeatedly as offensive, lurid, and inappropriate. Despite this, these books are repeatedly used in school classrooms. Why do teachers continue to use these books if they are not appropriate for their students? The truth is that most of these books are selected by the teachers for their literary value and for their ability to broaden students’ horizons.
     The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, one of these aforementioned offensive books, was written in 1985. Since its publication, it has been a book used in many advanced High School English classes throughout the country. Its continued appearance in the curriculum underscores teachers’ opinion that The Handmaid’s Tale is a book that has deep literary value and enduring meaning. Despite this, the book has repeatedly come under attack by parents and has been pulled from public and school library bookshelves. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is an exceedingly well written book that should be available in libraries without restriction; however, it should not be made part of any school’s curriculum until students are developmentally prepared for the concepts discussed.
     The Handmaid’s Tale is a book that some people consider offensive in many ways, but when looking at offensive reading material, it must first be understood what the fundamental issue of “offensive” is. In brief, because every person has a separate and equally valid opinion of what is and is not offensive, nearly all reading, regardless of where it comes from or who wrote it, is considered offensive in one person’s eyes. It may then be considered that reading is an offensive thing and that reading in schools is a bad idea to begin with. As strange as it may sound, this reflects why censorship cannot be allowed. The Handmaid’s Tale is a book that include passages that many would consider offensive, such as on page 121, where one of the most offensive passages is written: “My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it, the commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for” (Atwood 121). Despite the use of what most people would consider very strong language, this passage uses language appropriate to the theme of the book, and this specific passage is invaluable to the character development. The language choice in the passage is explained in full, and adds to the oddly cynical atmosphere. The passage also sets up the main character of the story, Offred, as numbed to sex, cynical, and explains her feelings about “the ceremony.” The author wrote each word in the book with a purpose, and she chose the words in this passage because they are meant to evoke an emotion in the reader.
     The Handmaid’s Tale is a book written with a complex first person narrative that requires a lot of character development, and sometimes the coarseness of the characters comes through expressions of strong language or lewd descriptions. If a parent finds a passage offensive, then it is their right to request an alternative assignment, and censor their own children; it is not the right of that parent to protest the offering of that book altogether, censoring the entire school. In 1992, there was an attempt to ban The Handmaid’s Tale in Waterloo, Iowa. Even though the reasons cited for banning the book were apparent, they did not, in the words of one of the members of the school board, merit “[taking] away the rights of others to read the book” (Sova 73). A final vote of six to one against removing the book from the school curriculum showed that The Handmaid’s Tale’s literary value to the curriculum outweighed any qualms over issues in the book (73). This is not a solitary case.
     In May of 1999, a woman who was both a social studies teacher and a parent at Chamberlain High School protested the use of The Handmaid’s Tale in the school curriculum. Kathy Jones, the protestor, cited several of the sexually graphic passages in the novel to display her dismay. The matter was settled when a school committee decided unanimously that the book was suitable for advanced placement English classes. Liz Griffin, a media specialist explained that “it was the excellence of the book; it was beautifully written” (Foerstel 230). The fact that the school board voted unanimously to keep the book in the school curriculum shows that it is a book with enough literary value to merit keeping it. And if a school keeps it as part of the curriculum, then it makes sense that a school library should offer the book in reference.
     Public and school libraries have an obligation to their patrons to offer as many books as possible. Though it is understood that libraries are limited in their ability to purchase novels, simply due to lack of infinite funds and shelf space, The Handmaid’s Tale has more than enough literary value to be part of any collection. Even noted publications such as the Library Journal have stated that The Handmaid’s Tale is a “powerful, memorable novel [that] is highly recommended for most libraries” (Fisher). In the Bethesda public library, the policy for obtaining books works something like this: An acquisition department decides on what books will be purchased through suggestions made over time by patrons and librarians, major publishers and major authors, and includes award winning books. According to Mrs. Weinberg, a librarian at Bethesda Public Library, the acquisition department is “very liberal” in this area and rarely turns down books, but it is interesting to note that she also says that they mostly only purchase from major publishing companies. In this system, Mrs. Weinberg also notes, even Caldecott-Medal winning books may not be purchased until after they have won the award (Weinberg). Though it is necessary to limit the scope of books somewhat, concentrating on major book publishers does not include some very notable works, and in and of itself is censorship, because it leaves much of the decision making up to the publishers.
     Even if the selection of books was truly infinite and all encompassing, the selection must also be open to all of the patrons of the library. It may be said that most children aren’t mature enough to read books such as The Handmaid’s Tale, but there are always exceptions to the rule. Rules that restrict children from reading outside of certain sections of a library should not be put in place because of such exceptions. Even if it were a simple enough matter for children to ask their parents for a note allowing them to read in the “non-children” section, such censorship would, in the words of John Milton, lead to “the discouragement of all learning […]” (Milton 4). If a parent finds the material offensive then it is the responsibility of that parent to accompany their children to the library, or raise their children to discuss offensive books. Without the proper exposure to reading and books as a good and wholesome activity, many of these children may grow up with a bad or warped impression of the value of reading. In the words of Norma Klein, a noted author, “Books are written to entertain, to make people think, to excite them, to expose them to new ideas. If we strip our library shelves, we will be creating a generation of young people who are not capable of thinking and understanding either themselves, other human beings, or the world at large” (Scales 130). The same applies if we restrict access to those shelves. But even though The Handmaid’s Tale should be on library bookshelves, that doesn’t mean it should be part of the curriculum until the students are developmentally prepared. Teachers spend an incredible amount of time making sure that this is the case.
     Curriculum development carefully considers the maturity and preparedness of the students it plans to teach. In such a system, books such as The Handmaid’s Tale, though of literary merit, should not be part of, for example, a first grade classroom. In fact, most schools choose to hold off teaching the book until students are in advanced placement English classes in high school. Such was the case in Chamberlain High School in Tampa, Florida as well as in Richland, Washington schools. In only one case was it “required” reading for most of the eleventh grade in Upper Moreland High School in Pennsylvania, and even then, parents were offered a list of alternative reading assignments (Foerstel 229-230). Clearly, the average eleventh grade student is considered to be mature enough to read and analyze this book if teachers have continued to use it for nearly two decades. Regardless of if The Handmaid’s Tale becomes part of the curriculum in a school, it should always be available in the school library because it has already proven itself through so many other schools.
     While making a book a part of the curriculum, it is important to note that schools cannot force any student to read a book, regardless of its literary value. Self-censorship, as misguided as it may be, is a right afforded to the people in the First Amendment. Because it is against the First Amendment, a parent may not eliminate an assignment from the entire school simply because they do not want their child to be exposed to the material. The purpose of the schools and what the teachers are paid to do is to expose students to developmentally appropriate material. The Handmaid’s Tale is offered in many high school classrooms because it is developmentally appropriate. But, because of the Wooley v. Maynard Supreme Court Case, it has been decided that “the First Amendment protects the right of individuals to hold a point of view different from the majority and refuse to foster… an idea they find morally reprehensible” (Hentoff 46). It is the right of that student to receive a separate assignment if they find that the content of the assignment is morally reprehensible, and not accept that point of view.
     John Milton poses an interesting question in Areopagitica, “[…] what wisdome can there be to choose, what continence forbeare without the knowledge of evil?” (Milton, 10). If one chooses to self-censor, one cannot decipher between good and evil, because one does not understand what evil is. Without the understanding of evil, one cannot judge that which is good, and then conscience is lost. This would be why one would choose not to self-censor, or to censor one’s child, but the fact of the matter is, that some people believe that if their children are exposed to evil they will become “infected” in some way, and become corrupt by being exposed to the ideas. Though sometimes, things like this do happen because of reading. According to Anne Harlan, a private library librarian, one girl read a set of lyrical poems that had undertones discussing being beaten as a child. The girl became rather obsessed with the poetry and had several issues with her parents and the school later on (Harlan).
     Though rare, it is true that some children, when exposed to literature that is exciting to them, they will embrace it. But sometimes, this acceptance of certain literature has lead to issues. This is one reason that parents setting boundaries and censoring their children is an important task. The Handmaid’s Tale does discuss several disturbing themes, and if a parent feels that their child is emotionally unready to accept the ideas presented in the book then the parent should be ready to censor their child. Schools should be ready to allow such censorship, and have alternative assignments for all reading.
     The purpose of censorship now should not be to stop groups of people from reading a book, but to prevent one’s self or one’s children. The Handmaid’s Tale, while being an exceptionally well-written book that should be a part of all libraries, is a book that includes many themes that would be inappropriate for students yet to achieve a certain amount of maturity. Parents should understand that if their child is assigned a novel that they disagree with, that they have the right to request another assignment, but that the purpose of the school is to provide their child with exposure to new ideas, and that controversial books may be part of those ideas. To censor is a terrible thing, but let those who wish for it, wish it only upon themselves.

Works Cited
(Please note a properly MLA formatted works cited is here in Microsoft Word Format)

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Ballantine Books, 1985.
Fisher, Ann H. (1986, February 1). Rev. of The Handmaid’s Tale. Library Journal. Retrieved December 18, 2005, from the World Wide Web: http://reviews.libraryjournal.com/BookDetail.aspx?isbn=0395404258
Foerstel, Herbert N. Banned in the U.S.A.: A reference guide to book censorship in schools and public libraries. Westport, CT: Greenword Press, 2002.
Harlan, Anne. Telephone Interview. 27 November 2005.
Hentoff, Nat. Free Speech for Me- But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Milton, John. Areopagitica (1644). Ed. Judy Boss. Renascence Editions. University of Oregon, 1997. 7 November 2005 .
Scales, Peter. “Sex, Psycology, and Censorship.” The Humanist (1987). Rpt. in Censorship: Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. David Bender. San Diego: Greehaven, 1990. 126-135.
Sova, Dawn B. Ed. Banned Books: Literature suppressed on sexual grounds. New York: Facts on File, 1998.
Weinberg, Kathie. Telephone Interview. 28 November 2005.

Posted by Kickmyassman at 10:08 PM | Comments (7)