Note: At the February meeting of the Clarence school board, new trustee Jason Lahti asked the board to add an agenda item to the next meeting so that certain inappropriate materials could be discussed. The following letter was circulated to some Clarence families over the last week. The author of the letter is Lahti’s wife (and co-trustee Roger Showalter‘s sister). Shown below the embedded letter is the text of what I sent the board in advance of Monday’s school board meeting. In 1999, an effort was made to ban Harry Potter in Clarence schools. Now, we have a wider range of materials under attack. I think my letter speaks for itself, but I will add that banning books in schools is a 1st Amendment issue, and if this happens, I will gladly participate in an effort to bring a Constitutional challenge. Banning books is a much clearer and more present danger to education than anything relating to Common Core.
Clarence School Curriculum Letter March 2014 by Alan Bedenko
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Clarence School Board,
It has come to my attention that there will be an agenda item and discussion at the March 10th board meeting to address concerns about certain curriculum materials having mostly to do with English, literature, and sex ed.
I will be blunt – I do not want the school board legislating, micromanaging, or censoring the ELA curriculum or the ELA teachers. I think that these teachers are professionals, and that the school and parents can trust them to make appropriate curriculum choices in order to stimulate our children’s minds, turn them into critical thinkers, and make them hunger not only for knowledge, but curiosity.
It is also my understanding that a policy exists whereby a parent can opt a child out of a particular reading assignment if they have a problem with the subject matter, so the issue is moot.
The timing of this is highly suspect. I perceive this as a renewed attempt to divide this community into factions. Last year it was the budget. This year it’s the books. Next year it will perhaps be rejection of the science curriculum, or abstinence-only education.
The NYS School Board Association maintains that a school board member must be, among other things, a “representative of the entire community”, and not just one faction of it.
I do not support the censorship or banning of books, and I hope that in these lean budget times, the board would choose to avoid a costly and embarrassing constitutional challenge.
1. CONFLICT OF INTEREST
There was an informational packet sent around to some town households in the last week or so, containing a call to action and a list of wildly extracontextual selections of themes and passages from books, essays, songs, and sex ed materials. It can be found at this link: http://www.scribd.com/doc/211263269/Clarence-School-Curriculum-Letter-March-2014
That packet was prepared in part and sent by Ginger Lahti, who is the sister of one board member and the wife of another. There is a clear and obvious conflict of interest, and Mssrs. Showalter and Lahti must recuse themselves from any discussion or vote on this curriculum issue. This is not to punish Mrs. Lahti from speaking out – she has every right to petition the board for whatever she chooses. But because of the close family relationship she has with two members of the board, fairness and ethics demand recusal. The Board’s own Code of Conduct demands high ethical standards and mandates avoidance of even the appearance of impropriety. I believe that this issue meets that standard, and demands recusal.
2. SEX ED
There is a handout about avoiding STDs that Mrs. Lahti finds objectionable. Another one a “sexual behavior chart”. I’m willing to bet that there are more materials that exist within the sex education curriculum, some of which likely contain information about not having sex at all. But teaching abstention does not free our district from not teaching kids how to avoid sexual risk as part of the larger health curriculum. Some kids and parents are embarrassed to discuss matters such as these, but it’s critically important for adolescents to know how to avoid unwanted pregnancy and disease. None of it forecloses a household from emphasizing abstinence within its own personal morality.
10 of the 24 objectionable materials are for AP classes – college level reading. These kids are at an advanced, mature stage of their academic and chronological lives and can absolutely be trusted to read about adult themes. Likewise, the educators can be trusted to select age-appropriate literature, and the uncomfortable parts of these works can be addressed and discussed.
Where one finds only “male love dolls” and “flavored lubricant”, another finds a brilliant essay on life as a homeless person. Does Jonathan Swift’s classic 1729 satire, “A Modest Proposal”, which mocks the mistreatment of the poor, now merit censorship? After all, Swift is not really advocating for the consumption of infants. Steinem didn’t write about frathouse rape to excite people’s prurient interests, but to expound on the college experience that some women endure. The “Fraternity Drinking Songs” piece demonizes sexual harassment and mistreatment of women – people should be outraged by the song, not by the piece criticizing the song and its rape lyrics.
Farewell to Manzanar isn’t about glorifying child abuse, but one Japanese-American family’s experience in the WW2 internment camps. Those camps were a nightmare – we’re now going to censor teachers from teaching about American history, because some of it was unpalatable? Should we restrict anyone from using Anne Frank’s diary in the classroom because her experience is just too much? These allegedly serious concerns include – apropos of nothing – lyrics from a 5 year-old Nelly Furtado song, and a Donn Esmonde column.
It would appear that there are passages and themes picked out of a larger work, completely out of any meaningful context. They are selected by trained, educated, licensed, professional AP English or Literature teachers so my child can become a critical thinker, a lover of reading, and a lifelong learner.
Education shouldn’t just be the rote memorization of facts and figures. Sure, that’s part of it, but school exists also to teach kids how to think. Life and this world are full of things that make people uncomfortable. Thinking about things that make us uncomfortable is to be encouraged, not legislated away. Given that most kids in Clarence come from a home with involved parents and relative comfort, we should all make sure that they understand, appreciate, and think critically about the world and their role in it.
If layperson parents want to ensure that their children are exposed only to “wholesome” materials (the definition of which is wholly subjective), they have myriad ways to accomplish that goal. The problem is that Clarence is not some monolith – one person’s “wholesome” is another person’s unconstitutional censorship.
Mrs. Lahti’s call to action closed with a quote from utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill; “bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men look on and do nothing.” Setting aside for a moment the insulting notion that Clarence’s ELA and health educators are “bad”, that one quote is – like all the others in that packet – wildly out of context and wholly inappropriate here. Mill’s 1867 inaugural speech at St. Andrew’s University is a great read, and a brilliant exposition on the purpose and value of higher education.
Mill went on to say that schools, “are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood. Their object is not to make skillful lawyers, or physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings.” He described education as many things, including, “the culture which each generation purposely gives to those who are to be its successors, in order to qualify them for at least keeping up, and if possible for raising, the level of improvement which has been attained.” These children will go on to do great things, if we let them. Here’s a better Mill passage:
If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
— On Liberty, John Stuart Mill
Please do not censor or redact what is taught to kids in the schools. Our professional educators do not seek to add violent, or pornographic texts in order to elicit similar behaviors from students, or to excite some hypothetical violent or sexual propensities. These texts all serve a particular purpose, within their proper contexts, whereby our children are molded into adults capable of critical thought and rational analysis. Please don’t legislate someone else’s morality on our children, and breach the Constitution in the process. If parents truly fear exposing their children to the materials at issue here, they can take advantage of the existent opt-out provision. This is sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Alan & Maryl Bedenko
Parents of two children in the Clarence Central School District, and School Taxpayers