05 October 2006

Delicate Subjects in and out of Schools

In Harrisonburg, Virginia, School Superintendent Donald Ford has banned a high school library's display of "Banned Books." I looked up the story in the local Daily News Record courtesy of Bookshelves of Doom. It quotes the superintendent's reasoning this way:

We are not going to send a message to kids encouraging them to read "banned" books. Our message should be to read books, a wide variety of books. But I don’t think we should tease kids into reading a book by trying to say, "there might be something juicy or controversial in this book. Therefore, it would be a good one for you to sneak home and read."
The high school's principal recalled that the dismantled display included such "juicy or controversial" titles as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Fahrenheit 451, The Diary of Ann Frank, and the Bible. And we don't want teenagers sneaking home to read any of those, do we?

As silly as that situation seems, it didn't arise in a vacuum. For one thing, the American Library Association has reported that challenges to books have gone down since it started tracking and publicizing the problem. In 1982, the organization reported over 200 books pulled from library shelves; last year, the number was 44. Attention seems to have helped. Americans don't like book-banning. So why would the superintendent squelch this modest display?

Last year Ford was caught up in a political controversy over Harrisonburg High School's Gay-Straight Alliance club. The Virginia legislature passed a law letting school bar clubs that "encourage or promote sexual activity"; its main sponsor was the local Republican delegate, and his comments showed he had the Harrisonburg club in mind. (This was back when the GOP thought homophobia was a winning issue, before the current crisis in the US House leadership.)

After the bill passed, the Daily News Record quoted Ford as saying:
In my estimation as a school administrator, the issue of whether gay-straight alliance are allowed is settled law. . . . If we allow one [club], then we have to allow [the GSA]. If I didn’t already believe that the issue was settled at the federal level it’s unlikely that this particular club would be at Harrisonburg High School right now.
The paper added, "Ford stressed that his position does not necessarily reflect his 'personal views' on the issue which he declined to discuss." I think his personal views are clear in the remark above.

Regardless of those views, however, Ford spoke up for civil rights and obeying the law. He might therefore feel under scrutiny from local bigots and social conservatives. The school board renewed his contract early, but shortly before the new school year a special-ed teacher at Harrisonburg High was arrested for soliciting an undercover police officer in a park. In that circumstance, Ford might have thought that displaying Banned Books was a potential headache he couldn't afford. Still, squelching the display was the wrong move.

In Frisco, Texas, meanwhile, according to a story in the New York Times, the school board suspended an elementary-school art teacher after a parent complained that during a museum field trip a student had seen "nude statues and other nude art representations.” The administration insists they have other unspecified issues with the teacher. She insists that she's had good evaluations in previous years.

That news story brought up questions I've wondered about since seeing the Auguste Rodin sculpture gallery at the Brooklyn Museum a few years ago. It displays several studies for Rodin's monument to the novelist Honoré de Balzac. The finished version shows Balzac draped in a robe, his hands inside the garment. Rodin's preliminary study of "Balzac as an athlete" shows what the figure is doing under that robe, even in a photograph taken at the most delicate possible angle.

The website for the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, benefactor of the museum gallery, explains:
In this controversial image Rodin associates intellectual and artistic creativity with sexual prowess for which Balzac was equally well-known.
More precisely, Rodin showed the novelist masturbating to symbolize his prodigious literary output. For the final version, the sculptor draped a coat around the figure. Even so, some people didn't like it--imagine!

Now for my questions: When New York kids go on field trips to the Brooklyn Museum, do they visit that Rodin gallery? Do they have questions about the Balzac sculptures on their little clipboards? Or are there limits even in New York City?

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