“Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.” –Thoreau

26 January 2012

Book-banning freedom: a bit of a rant.

"In Arizona, the Tucson Unified School District governing board recently voted to suspend the controversial Mexican American studies program. The move came after the state superintendent John Huppenthal deemed the program in violation of a state law banning, among other things, classes that promote resentment toward a race or class."

Listen to or read the NPR interview with Michel Martin.

Sometimes I really don't know what to say. Sometimes I do.

So, here's the thing:

Let me preface by admitting that I personally know some of the authors on the list of books no longer available to Tucson students. It's only fair I mention that because it implies a clear bias. A lot of people have a lot of opinions on this program, and you ought to formulate your own. Therefore, I won't discuss this particular ban any more than I have to. I'm just here to talk about school book banning in general.

Fasten your seat belts.

The United States of America has taken a pretty clear stance on things like freedom of speech, and freedom of the press, and freedom of information. As in, "Yes, please, all of the above." Even documents pertaining to national security are made available to the public after a sufficient period of time, and with persistent enough requests. Now, I'm not saying there aren't flaws-- historically, the government has seen fit to redact and even fabricate those documents in an effort to keep us in the dark. But that only works to a point. At the end of the day, Americans truly believe that the truth shall set us free. Well, most of us do. Usually.

Banning books, for any reason, is completely counter to everything the United States is meant to stand for. We are a free market, an open market, and that means freedom to publish anything anybody anywhere might want to read. That means allowing our citizens access to information we don't agree with. Information that scares us. Information that sickens us. It's tough, and it can be painful, but that's the social contract we sign if we want to live and work in this country.

Of course, there's a wealth of difference between allowing these books to be printed and using them to instruct our children. But I admit some concern when school districts are granted the power to teach my child religion in biology class. And when administrators have the balls to tell 50% of their student body that the study of their own history promotes "resentment toward a race or class."

Wake up, John Huppenthal: If these students didn't resent powerful white men before, they sure as hell do now.

Okay, okay, I said I wouldn't go into this particular case. My larger point is that these kinds of value judgments-- about who resents what and why-- aren't really pertinent. Aside from the fact that they cannot by quantified, they imply that the school has some kind of right and/or obligation to teach morality to their students. But the thing is, they don't. They really, really do not.

It isn't a teacher's job to parent your child. It isn't a librarian's job to parent your child. It's your job. The school district's only obligation is to tell them the truth, all the varying versions thereof, and try to encourage them to make up their own minds about it. If our schools become nothing but Citizen-Factories, pumping out equally-brainwashed young cadets to fill an outdated workforce, then American innovation will die. The American Dream (such that it is) relies upon innovation. It relies upon men and women with eager minds and wide open hearts.

You can't build those people in a world that tells us what to think, rather than teaching us how to.

Any time someone decides for you what your child can and cannot read, that should frighten you. No one has the right to form your child's opinions for them. Not even you. And no one has the right to implement rules that stand in the way of giving teenaged students a more complete understanding of the world. It's a big place, and we need to raise big people capable of tackling these really big issues. These teenaged years are the last time we have with them to prepare future citizens for adulthood. We should be trying to teach them about the importance of freedom, and how to maintain it, and exactly what our fore-bearers went through to get it. All of our fore-bearers. No limitations.

Stand against banning books.

Stand against limiting knowledge.

Stand with and for your country.

24 January 2012

Bucket List.

Back to the future.

Yes, yes, I know. I really haven't posted since November. I had a good reason, any number of good reasons. I apologize for my absence. One of my very good reasons is the subject of my blog post today.

I spent ten days in Vermont this past month studying at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. It was a weighty experience. Everything about VCFA is heavy-- the travel, the work load, the analysis, the lectures, the snow. Well, perhaps not so much snow in the summer. That remains to be seen. The point is that VCFA is not for the faint of heart. Or the poor of health, it turns out, though I'll get to that later.

Let me begin by saying this:

I learned more in this ten day period, about work and about writing and about life, than I did in the four years I spent on my undergrad. This is not an indictment of my alma mater. I did not study writing in undergrad, and so I have only myself to blame. Perhaps those who studied writing at other institutions were less dazzled than poor little overwhelmed me. All of my professors are famous. Many of my classmates are published. I felt silly and ill-prepared. I do not know the meaning of "objective correlative" or "cultivation theory." I did not know that semi-colons had gone out of style; indeed, I adore them! I knew I'd be going in behind and was prepared to catch up. But catching-up will take more than reading a few craft books and learning the lingo.

VCFA is a program for writers, for serious writers with serious goals. Well, I certainly have the goals. But I have not given myself permission to think of myself as a "serious writer." I'm not even sure what that means. Every lecture I attended, every workshop I sat in, gave me new insight on how to approach my own work. After Susan Fletcher's incredible lecture on exposition, I wanted to spend days ripping apart my own manuscript. I think most first semester students experienced this same awakening.

Some of my classmates (wonderful writers, all) had done almost no research before choosing this program. Some did not know our professors or recognize their work. I could not understand this. And yet, I felt they had a stronger sense of belonging, of purpose, than I did. I'm an excellent researcher, an above-average student, but what kind of writer am I? I'm not sure. And what does it mean that I do not know? I am a scholar of children's and young adult's books, but it does not necessarily follow that I'll write it well.

So now I am home, and I'm ill, and I think my body is punishing me. Ten days in frigid Vermont? Two days of hard, non-stop travel? No, no, I don't think so. You are going to bed. I suppose I expected it. But I still have school work to do, and a household to run, and eventually I'm going to have to take new work again. VCFA cannot be my whole life. It ought not to be anyone's. This balancing act of worker and artist and scholar and wife will take time to perfect. I'm working on it. It is hard.

My brain is too scattered. The bathroom needs cleaning.  I hate doing the laundry when it's snowy outside.

I promise to post something more coherent later.

At least my cats missed me.

Blessings to you and yours.