The Free Market of Ideas

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I belonged to the National Education Association for nearly the entire run of my teaching career. At first, when I started work in the classroom, two considerations drove my membership: potential lawsuits from parents, and because I came from a union household.

Born and raised in the second half of the twentieth century–I came of age during the halcyon days of blue collar workers across the United States. The burgeoning middle class had grown profoundly, sparked by the break-neck industrial production of World War Two. My father, in particular, was a steelworker, laboring over pots of bubbling aluminum alloys, a dangerous task, but made safe by mutual negotiations between labor and management. 

Teaching is a different kind of work, yet still requires extraordinary vigilance and management skills to ward off problems. The public can be brutal to teachers, especially when they believe their kids are mislead, or mistreated. For example, in my very first year in the classroom a parent called me out for teaching that the Electoral College actually elects the president. This father accused me of being a liar. Stunned, the episode taught me a more powerful lesson–simply because adults produce children, that does not guarantee worldly wisdom. So I joined the union for academic protection.

My only fear in the three-plus decades I worked with teenagers was censorship. That one day my principal would walk into my classroom and say, “Gail, you can’t talk about that.  Parents are complaining.” Smothering truth, glossing over unsavory events, or avoiding topics altogether is a sobering prospect. At best this renders schools no more than fast food joints, where you can “have it your way.” At worst censorship is an Orwellian nightmare where truth is subjugated for political reasons.

Last night the board of my old district voted to ban a book. In a split vote the board ruled for a full removal of the novel from a sophomore elective reading list. A grandmother did not like the “f-bomb” used in the manuscript, nor the sexual elements in the work.  She cried for the cameras. Now all of the Sophomores, (thousands of them) in the district are denied the benefit of learning this author’s thoughts and ideas, a chance to empathize with the writer’s struggle. Because a grandmother doesn’t like the content of the book. What power.

The kicker is that one can’t kill ideas. And valid ideas, well written and heartfelt, are enormously powerful too. (Maybe more powerful than a weeping grandmother.) No one individual should be able to make that decision for the vast numbers of students whose parents want their children well-rounded and compassionate.

The notion that a miniscule voice can leverage wide-reaching censorship chills me to my core. As a new writer, I must express my truth as I have experienced it. If a person, such as a grandmother doesn’t like my message, or any other writers, don’t read the book. Don’t let your kids read the book. There is more harm inflicted on society, when in the free market of ideas, the tough ones are oppressed.

2 comments on “The Free Market of Ideas

  1. Linda Jackson says:

    I am the daughter of an English teacher. My parents never censored my reading. I sometimes read works which showed the seamier side of humanity, and I gained understanding as a result. When I felt really uncomfortable with a book’s content, I usually put it down and didn’t finish it. One exception was The Catcher in the Rye. I detested that book when it was required reading in 10th grade. I re-read it as an adult, and I still don’t care for the book. But that doesn’t mean that other people should be prevented from reading it

    As a parent, I didn’t censor my children’s reading. I often read the works myself, so we could discuss them. We often had very interesting conversations about the books, which opened the door to further communication in our family.

    My thinking about this incident: Parents have the right to censor reading for THEIR OWN CHILDREN ONLY. Please don’t overstep your bounds and try to tell me what MY children should and shouldn’t read.

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