Censorship can occur anywhere. It might be something extremely obvious like a text being removed from the classroom, or less obvious like when a teacher prioritizes reading certain texts over others. Regardless, all censorship has one thing in common – it inhibits the reader’s access to knowledge. I came into this course with the assumption that censorship is bad, plain and simple. However, I have learned it is not always black and white.
The outcome of many censorship cases is largely dependent on who has the loudest voice – those against censorship versus those who promote it. In colloquial language, we might call this person a squeaky wheel. In this section, I will weigh the arguments proposed by the numerous parties involved in the case. Then I can make a conclusion about whose argument I agree with.
Parents – There were a significant number of angry parents that filed complaints to Halton administration. The media only reports on the negative parent opinions of the book, probably because there were no parents willing to speak out in its favor. It is clear that one side dominated the discussion in numbers. However, we must question the validity of their claim that “The book is apparently written by an atheist where the characters and text are anti-God, anti-Catholic and anti-religion.” It cannot be disputed that the text does question the authority of large, powerful organizations. Whether the institution in question is specifically the Catholic Church is open to the reader. For many families in Halton, the principles of the Catholic Church govern their families. Why would someone want to allow their children to read a text that defies their core values? They would not, which seems reasonable. Dr. Aaron Herold is able to appreciate this side of the argument. In his interview he states “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.” Although the parent’s logic is sound, we must consider what censorship does in a school district at large.
Halton School Board – The Halton board is not just responsible for one person’s child, but a collective body of students. It is their job to provide the best educational services possible. It is the school board’s duty to make sure all students are provided with material that will enhance their knowledge. In my opinion, this should include reading about a multitude of different values. When they chose to take away the book due to parent complaints, they made a unilateral decision to censor all students. It is also possible that school board members that opposed the anti-Catholic text themselves let their own feelings about the book cloud their decision making process. Adults, especially fearful ones, will go to great lengths to preserve the innocence of children. However, administration should have drawn a line in the sand between parenting and censoring.
One should take into account that Halton is both a Catholic school and a public school which puts them in a slightly different position. Because this is the case, one might assume all families in the district are somewhat religious. Therefore, they have very similar values and would indeed want the book censored. We did not find any arguments from parents fighting to keep the book in circulation, so perhaps a significant amount did want the book removed. However, the lack of defense for the book at Halton could also be due to the social implications associated with speaking out against the majority.
Religious leaders – Religious organizations have a negative opinion of Pullman due to his anti-Catholic comments. Their very public declaration of the book’s anti-Catholic themes added fuel to angry parent’s fire. Pullman states that religious organizations often take advantage of people and use God as an excuse to do bad deeds. Clearly, there is conflict between Pullman and religious leaders. Pullman antagonizes these organizations, so it is somewhat expected that they would attempt to undermine his work. Comments from the Vatican and the Catholic League carry a lot of weight, especially in the eyes of Catholic parents and a Catholic school board.
Children’s rights activists – There are several individuals who have published articles defending The Golden Compass. There are some examples listed on the “Public Opinions” page. In the article titled “Censorship,” teacher and author Bobbi Swiderek is very upfront about her opinion of censorship in school: it is B-A-D, bad! The article is centered around the premise that parents do have rights regarding what their children should learn, but a major problem ensues when parents try to control the education of other people’s children. Similarly, Dr. Patricia Ard states that it is criminal to censor a text as good as The Golden Compass. She says that while schools should teach good moral values, religion has no place in the classroom. While there is a convincing argument that The Golden Compass has anti-Catholic themes, critics did not accuse it of having a poor moral message. In fact, the book champions values of truth and bravery.
I think it is a common misconception to view the complainant as the villain in this story of censorship. I do not think parents are wrong here. The only binding contact someone signs when they become a parent is to love and protect their child, which is exactly what occurred at Halton. That being said, everyones definition of protection is different. While some parents think sheltering their children is beneficial, others believe exposure to different ideas will make them the most successful adults. Parents are not obliged to teach their children things they do not agree with. For instance, I was raised Jewish, so some of my family members would have felt uncomfortable if I went to school and was taught about Catholic values. Even I was unconsciously censored by omission.
This case attacks a larger question: Are educators obliged to teach children about something they do not agree with? It was up to the Halton School Board to provide the best materials for their students. By eliminating this reading option for all students, the administration crosses the line of education and steps into the realm of parenting. While I do believe parents should have input in their child’s education, they should not have the right to parent other students.
Making a definitive conclusion about the censorship of The Golden Compass proved more difficult than I originally thought. In my opinion, the Halton administration prioritized their own comfort over the education of their students. I side with the situation that provides students with the best space to learn and grow, which in some rare cases might involve censorship. In this case, I think it would have been appropriate to leave the book on the shelves. By depriving so many students of access to the text, administration is doing more harm than good. Due to the power associated with reading, this text could have made a child smile or make them think of a career in writing. Although somewhat corny, reading holds the power of knowledge and the key to the future, while censorship puts yellow police tape around eduction.
Swiderek, Bobbi. “Censorship.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 39 no. 7, April 1996, pp. 592-594.