- Please tell us a little about your academic background and your specific topics of interest as they pertain to young adult literature and/or censorship.
- As the teacher of a class concerning constitutional rights, do you think censorship is a violation of our rights?
- Under what circumstances do you think censorship is a positive thing for children/young adults?
- Under what circumstances do you think censorship is a negative thing for children/young adults?
- How do values regarding censorship tend to be different between different groups, i.e. children/young adults, parents, teachers, and administrators? Is it important, unimportant, or somewhere in the middle?
- Do you think censorship benefits or hinders the education of young students?
- Are moral/religious values taught in schools? If so, how? Should moral/religious values be taught in schools, in your opinion?
- Do schools have a right or a duty to teach students things that their parents do not want them to know?
- What is your personal viewpoint regarding the censorship of The Golden Compass? Why?
- Do you have any additional comments on the censorship of the The Golden Compass, or censorship in general?
Here’s my crack at some answers for you. These are all very good questions. I can’t answer them all, but I’ll do my best to answer as many as I can. Rather than go through each one, I’ll just try to write a general statement that will cover all those I can answer. Before doing so, though, I’ll briefly state why I can’t answer all of them. Firstly, I’ve never read The Golden Compass (though I did see the movie a long time ago), so I can’t really speak to whether it’s appropriate to prevent children from reading it (question 9). Also, I’m not at all familiar with the specifics of the incident in question, so I can’t give any kind of opinion on merits of this case. As I understand it, it involved a school in Canada (was it a public school?) that sought to remove the book from its library shelves. That’s the understanding of the incident I’m working from (and really it’s all I know), so if there’s any more relevant info, or if I’m wrong in any respect, let me know and I can amend my answers. Also, I won’t necessarily be giving my personal viewpoint here. Partly that’s because I believe doing so is inconsistent with my duty as a professor. I’d like to give my professional viewpoint (which is different than my personal opinion), and also, where possible, to articulate both sides of the question—where both sides do have some merit, and where they can help you and Jacob to come to a better sense of the bigger issues at play in this debate.
So, to do my best to answer some of these questions: My academic background is in political philosophy and American constitutionalism, and I focus on issues of politics and religion. I teach courses on political theory and constitutional law, and I’m writing a book about religion and the political philosophy of the liberal Enlightenment. I look at the philosophical and theological underpinnings of the establishment of modern liberal democracy (and the way that religion had to be transformed to permit toleration, democracy, and limited government) as well as our current debates about religious and moral issues today. At Geneseo, I teach courses on political philosophy, constitutional law, and judicial politics. I don’t have a focus on—or even know much about—young adult literature, but I would say that the topic of civic education is very relevant to my teaching and research.
Now, to answer the remaining questions, the first thing I want to do is note that the term “censorship” can mean any number of things, and it may perhaps be inappropriate when it comes to incidents like this one. Censorship generally refers to government regulation of speech—for example, instances where journalists must have their stories or editorials approved by the government prior to publication. (It’s generally agreed that such “prior restraints” are what the First Amendment was originally meant to prohibit). But when it comes to forming an educational curriculum, or deciding what it’s appropriate for children to read or to watch, the term “censorship” may be inappropriate (though maybe some would dispute this). All textbooks, for example, stress certain things and leave certain things out, and they do this for various reasons (some of which are pedagogical)—perhaps a certain fact would only be confusing to children of a certain age, or perhaps children aren’t intellectually or emotionally ready yet to hear about certain things. We generally wouldn’t use the term “censorship” to describe the actions of a parent who won’t allow a ten year old to watch an R rated movie, or to read a disturbing but true book about the Holocaust—any more than we would blame a parent for not feeding steak to a baby. I say this because it’s important to keep in mind that when books are removed from school libraries, those doing the removing generally believe they’re acting in this manner. Of course, whether they really are or ought to be doing so in this particular case, or whether it’s better for children of a certain age to be exposed to a wider range of ideas, is a harder question. (And perhaps there may also be a difference between removing a book from a library and, say, suspending a student who brings his own copy to school.) Like all powers, the power to form an educational curriculum by limiting the ideas children are exposed to can be abused. But that doesn’t mean that in principle it doesn’t exist. Children are, well, children; they’re in the process of having their minds and characters shaped, and society has an interest in making sure they become good adults in the future.
So as someone who teaches a constitutional rights and liberties course, I would absolutely say that government censorship (of the media, for example) is a violation of our rights (leaving aside instances of national emergency and the like). But whether it would be okay for a school to remove a library book or control student speech is more murky. Legally speaking, in the American context, the Supreme Court has held that public high school students do enjoy free speech rights when it comes to political issues (Tinker v. Des Moines), but it has also held that public schools have a legitimate interest in providing a moral education to children (Morse v. Frederick, upholding the suspension of a student for speech that was deemed to condone drug use). As I said above, I think this logic is sound, even if the line between the two can get blurry. If a school wanted to remove, say, Mein Kompf from its library on the grounds that this book could do damage to children who read it, I think that would be perfectly reasonable. However, if a public school were to prohibit The Golden Compass, and if it did so on religious grounds, there would be grounds for a potential lawsuit alleging an Establishment Clause violation. The school district would have to show, among other things, that there is a valid secular purpose for removing the book. However, the same would not be true of a private (religious) school, which would have every right to prohibit children from reading books they deem dangerous or heretical while at school. In fact, the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause protects their right to do so.
I think that covers 2-6. 7 is a complicated question, but the short answer is that yes, moral values are always taught in schools. (Religious values are potentially another story; it depends on what kind of schools, or whether you believe moral principles are ultimately always linked to some view of the ultimate reality of things). We certainly give children a moral education that supports the fundamental principles of our society—we teach them, for example, to be tolerant of others who may be different, to treat everyone equally, to solve their problems through dialogue and not through violence, etc. Other societies have taught different things. And of course, this continues into college: Geneseo has a “Statement of Mission, Vision, and Values”. I think it’s right and proper that schools do this. Though of course what the specific moral principles are that schools should seek to instill is another question. In fact, I would argue based on my research, the idea that church and state should be separate (and thus that public schools should be secular) is itself a moral principle—one that many parents who choose to send their children to private religious schools reject. Lastly, in response to #8—do schools have a right or duty to teach children things their parents don’t want them to know?—I would say that it very much depends on the circumstance, but in some cases yes. This is because, as I said before, schools have an obligation to create good future adult citizens, and in our society children are not mere creatures of their parents. So—considering hypothetical (and extreme) cases only—if a parent were to keep crucial factual information from their children, or if they were to attempt to inculcate them with illiberal moral notions—notions that could make them grow into bad people as adults—I believe schools would have the right and the obligation to combat this. Of course, that’s also a power that government should use sparingly, because to interfere in the rights of private families is also to risk infringing on a fundamental principle of our society. If you’re interested in a Supreme Court case in which precisely that issue was debated—and in which the Court ultimately came down on the side of the parents—I’d recommend looking at Wisconsin v. Yoder.