Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A curious incident of censorship


At the end of last term the English department (which consists of one other teacher and I) decided to introduce a new setwork to the Grade 8s. We deliberated for a while and settled on The Outsiders; a book about youth gangs in a working class American suburb. We thought this would be perfect for our kids given the horrendous stories they write about relating to gangs and violence in their communities (this is not to be alarmist as a few kids write about this, but a few is enough to be alarmed). Alas! The book of our choice was not available and with the guidance of the book supplier and a list from the Western Cape Department of Education, we stumbled into choosing  A curious incident of a dog in the night.

When we selected the book, I hadn’t read it but fortunately my colleague had. I spent a few hours over the weekend reading the booking and I was amused by the few expletives wondering what the reaction would be from my learners. I didn’t flinch at the blatant blasphemy. I handed out the book to my kids encouraging them to start reading it when they had a dull moment (because I’m ambitious about my children willingly reading a book they did not choose). 

Much to my surprise, my learners were excited about it and many haven’t been able to put it down. One even confessed how the book has almost cast a spell on him and he hasn’t been able to put it down. He read beyond the expletives and the blasphemy and told me he is enthralled by the story. Others were very giddy and excited when they read the expletives and that was an impetus for them to keep reading in order to discover any more expletives in the book.

However, the excitement of finally finding a book that has captivated most of the boys in my class was short-lived. The English teachers were summoned into the principal’s office after a parent took umbrage with the book. The overt blasphemy was offensive and the parent threatened to withhold the book from his daughter. When I was initially told about this reaction I didn’t think about it too much as it was just one parent, but when we were called in for a brief meeting my heart jumped to my throat.

I was somewhat ill-prepared for the religious argument that was used to suggest that the book should be withdrawn all together. We (the English teachers and the School Management team-SMT) were at loggerheads about when is it appropriate to talk to children about blasphemy and expletives and how language teachers should approach this? A classist argument was also put on the table suggesting that children from homes where they are not engaged in intellectual conversation (as is the case with children at our school) will not be able to engage in an intellectual discussion about blasphemy and the appropriateness of language because many come from very conservative homes where expletives are a sin (this argument was based on the assumption that all our children come from religious homes, mostly Christian and Muslim). The question of whose right it is to talk to children about this and how this can be a teachable moment was debated and it was the English department versus SMT.

The real issue of censorship was finally put on the table. How do we, as teachers, choose content that is appropriate for children who are entrusted to us given their values at home and what we as teachers deem they should be exposed to in a critical manner?

I think it’s important to highlight that the English teachers were confronted by an SMT that is openly Christian in a school that is neither private nor religious. And both the English teachers are very removed from religion (an atheist and a wondering agnostic). Therefore the question of discontinuing the book on religious grounds alone was inconceivable to us. Added to this, the English teachers are both first year teachers at the school. Being recent students from (so-called) former white liberal institutions, many alarm bells started ringing in my head when the word censorship was bandied about as a possibility. Coming from an intellectuall community at Rhodes where I had been taught about critical thinking and was allowed to teach two undergrad courses, the thought of having other people use their authority to remove content from my classroom gave me heart palpitations. Our argument was for keeping the book and letting the Grade 8s explore the ideas in the story, beyond the expletives and blasphemy. The rest of the arguments in the discussion were very fuzzy because I think I stopped talking when the conversation became heated.

There were two meetings held about this issue and after much deliberation and the effort of convincing the principal that there was educational value in the book (and fortunately the principal read the book himself to assess the level of appropriateness), we have been allowed to keep the book. As my colleague put it “We won!”. English teachers are strange creatures in schools across the world. When it comes to literature, we have the opportunity of exposing our learners to a myriad of ideas about the existential situation of humanity as well as encouraging imagination, the possibility of seeing the world in a different way especially when learners encounter ideas that might make them uncomfortable. However, this is within a system of education that is made of hierarchy and people who may not have the same values about what content should be in classrooms. This threatens the position of teachers who want to challenge the status quo, especially when they are new to the system. This threat can be ameliorated through trust. We have to trust that teachers care about their learners’ intellectual development in spite of the homes they come from and the religious beliefs they hold.

However, as my colleaugue pointed out in one of the meetings “This does not mean that I will introduce Fifty Shades of Grey to the matric class next year!”