Tuesday, October 23, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Classrooms need some controversy for learning

Thanks to those dunces in the Florida Legislature, the state’s public education system, which has never been confused with the Age of Enlightenment, could be slipping toward becoming a tower of drivel.

Earlier this year, Tallahassee passed a bill that would allow any citizen of the state to challenge any public school educational material as pornographic, biased, inaccurate or a violation of state law and be granted a hearing before an outside mediator.

This, of course, has led to dysfunctional Florida being, well dysfunctional Florida, where the official state symbol ought to be Zelda Fitzgerald.

According to the Associated Press, a number of challenges already have been filed by residents who are wadded over such things as requiring students to read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which deals with the mass censorship of books in a futuristic dystopian society, because it features profanity and violence.

Other issues have arisen over certain history books used in Brevard County that critics complain don’t extol American exceptionalism. Perhaps they are annoyed the texts bring up minor American flaws like the nation’s history of slavery and the genocide of American Indians. Details. Details.

And a group called Florida Citizens’ Alliance argues that teaching stuff like evolution and climate change shouldn’t be allowed to muddle the minds of our precious youth without equally including creationism, as well as the belief by some that global warming is a hoax.

Indeed, one Nassau County resident scholar suggested schools should teach that life was created on Earth by space aliens. What would be the source material for this curriculum? Plan 9 From Outer Space?

Meanwhile in Seminole County, parents kvetched that a middle school textbook on ancient history had no chapter on Islamic civilization, even though the time period being studied occurred in the earliest stages of the birth of Islam.

Thanks to the Florida Legislature, the potential exists to throw an already overburdened state public education system into chaos if both individuals and organized groups like the Florida Citizens’ Alliance attempt to advance their agendas with groundless challenges to textbooks, teaching methodology and established facts.

It is not only academically irresponsible, it is manifestly stupid to treat creationism and the claim that climate change is a hoax on an equal footing with the overwhelming established science supporting the theory of evolution and the undeniable fact that the growing crisis of climate change is attributable to human activity.

Crusading to ban certain books such as Fahrenheit 451, or Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, because they may contain provocative subject matter or language is certainly a slippery slope. Should Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer be banned because it contains racial slurs? Should Romeo and Juliet be given the heave-ho because it is a tale of teenage love? Macbeth and Hamlet are both pretty violent, but perhaps no more so than the Grand Theft Auto video game.

The Merchant of Venice is considered by some as fairly anti-Semitic. Too controversial for the classroom?

Catcher in the Rye contains some intense profanity — too intense for students to be exposed to a classic novel?

If the Florida Citizens’ Alliance wants to reject established science and revel in the intellectually dubious teaching of creationism and/or that climate change is little more than "blatant indoctrination," then there is a perfectly reasonable alternative. They can enroll their kiddos in fundamentalist faith-based schools, which are more than free to teach whatever unfounded science they want. Problem solved.

It is certainly appropriate in the teaching of American history to take note of the nation’s role in preserving peace, defeating tyrants and serving as a beacon of democracy around the world. But we also are a society not without its glaring warts, from slavery, to the Trail of Tears, to the overthrowing of governments that incurred our displeasure. That’s not exceptional. But it still needs to be studied.

Great literature should be provocative and challenging and yes, sometimes measuredly offensive. No one is suggesting schoolchildren should be assigned Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer or Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.

Then again ... oh, never mind.

Textbook selection is a complex task. But the entire purpose of any education system is to prepare students for life. And you can’t do that without exposing them to scientific fact and intellectual curiosity.

Today most young people are more than familiar with less than genteel language and the reality that yes, there really is a thing called (very quietly now) sex.

It serves no useful purpose to attempt to censor classrooms.

Ultimately, the lesson the Florida Citizens’ Alliance has failed to learn is that school districts aren’t in the business of corrupting young minds, but expanding them.

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