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Williams: Hanover instructional crackdown borders on censorship

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If you possess the history of Hanover County schools, you should studiously avoid anything remotely resembling censorship.

After all, this was the school district that in January 1966 banned Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” about a white Southern lawyer, Atticus Finch, and his defense of a black man unjustly charged with rape. The book was deemed “immoral” and “improper for our children to read.”

This turn of events moved Lee to pen a letter to the editor of The Richmond News Leader.

“Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board’s activities, and what I’ve heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read,” she wrote.

Indeed, this book ban took place when segregation, discrimination and racial strife were still prevalent in a Virginia. Anyone with a problem with the morality and propriety of “To Kill a Mockingbird” absorbed all the wrong lessons from the book. In Virginia, it should have been required reading.

Today, nearly five decades later, it is a film that has raised hackles in Hanover.

Hanover school administrators have sent all principals a list of instructional materials that teachers now need a principal’s permission to use in class, including the controversial film “Thomas L. Friedman Reporting: Searching for the Roots of 9/11.” That documentary’s classroom use has come under fire by some residents, as well as Sean Davis, chairman of the Hanover Board of Supervisors.

Dale Gouldman of Mechanicsville launched a formal complaint about the film that will be taken up by the School Board tonight. Gouldman and others have argued that the film could incite violence, promote anti-American sentiment, cause students to join a terrorist group or even lead to a school shooting.

The list also consists of five books that have prompted written complaints since 2007. The memo states teachers are now required to send notification to parents if they use any of these materials and provide an alternative assignment for families who opt out.

No one in Hanover is talking about outright book bans. But at least one education activist argues that the list will have a chilling effect on teachers and principals.

Ragan Phillips of Ashland likened the situation to that in Ray Bradbury’s 1953 book “Fahrenheit 451,” a novel of a future in which books are banned and, when found, burned by firefighters.

“My thought is that this is, in effect, “Fahrenheit 451” in a different form. If I were a teacher and I wanted to use that material, I’d be afraid to use it unless I was willing to lose my job,” Phillips said.

The books in question range from “The Color Purple,” the 1983 Pulitzer Prize winner by Alice Walker and a favorite target of would-be censors, to Rosemary Graham’s “Thou Shalt Not Dump the Skater Dude,” described as “innocent and non-controversial” by Teenreads.com.

“Thirteen Reasons Why,” by Jay Asher, deals with the issue of adolescent suicide and has won a slew of young adult book awards. “So Far From the Bamboo Grove,” a semi-autobiographic story by a Japanese-American author, Yoko Watkins, describes the waning days of World War II, not always to the satisfaction of Korean-American readers. “The Well,” by Mildred D. Taylor, is about generosity in the face of racial prejudice.

“The quality is quite high,” Ashland resident Phyllis Theroux said of the books on the sensitive-materials list.

Theroux, the wife of Phillips and an author of books and essays whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and other publications, said the Hanover policy apparently stems from a belief “that our children are not capable of learning the truth or absorbing other points of view.”

Hanover School Board Chairman Robert L. Hundley Jr. says what’s happening is part of a process to assure all voices are heard and taken into account.

Materials have been banned over the course of history, “but typically we like to think our teachers are using materials that cause our students to engage in critical thinking skills and open discussion of ideas,” he said.

Might such a policy have a chilling effect?

“I certainly don’t want to speak for all teachers, but I would think that some teachers would feel that way,” he said. “The fine line we walk is trying to make things as informative for parents as possible if they have a particular issue with some sort of material.”

As for the school district allowing students to opt out of using certain materials, “I could see that as an attempted compromise” by the school administration, Hundley said. “We certainly don’t want to hamstring our teachers any more than they have to be, but we also feel like we have to be cognizant of community concerns.”

The reaction to the film hosted by Friedman, a New York Times columnist who pushes back against some of the views expressed therein, leans toward hyperbole, to say the least. Educators should not be hamstrung by the unfounded fears and biases of parents. We not only need to be exposing young people to diverse ideas, but also doing all we can to encourage them to read. We don’t need to be sending confusing messages about free speech and censorship.

The nation seems engulfed in a tide of anti-intellectualism, with little tolerance for opposing viewpoints. At least part of the blame lies with an Internet culture that has people seeking out information that confirms their world view, to the exclusion of all else. There’s too much opting out going on outside the schoolhouse.

If educational material does not challenge students to consider a different point of view, or transport them to a place beyond their comfort zone, what’s happening is the opposite of an education.

A district that once denied its students the wisdom of Atticus Finch should think twice before restricting teacher access to materials that can open minds or change hearts.

mwilliams@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6815

Twitter: @RTDMPW

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