Notepad on Life

March 1, 2011

Bedford book ban – facts and bluster don’t add up

Filed under: school,sex — - @ 6:52 am
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Water for Elephants

Image via Wikipedia

Having raised an eyebrow at some of the content in books set for my own son’s English course, I’m not surprised to learn that some parents are kicking up a stink in New Hampshire, USA over the reading material being put before their kids.

“A second book has been pulled from the Bedford High School curriculum following complaints about its sexual content by the same parents who started the argument about “Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By In America,” which was removed from the high school’s personal finance course last month” – from The Nashua Telegraph, brought to my attention via

Nor am I exactly stunned by some of the high-falutin’ outrage of those commenting on the report, with ‘Nazi’, ‘tyrant’, ‘Victorian’, ‘censorship’ et al given a predictable airing.

First, the substance of the complaint – extracts of Water for Elephants can be read here, here and here. My understanding is that it was offered as optional reading (parental consent required) for 13-year-olds.

Second, the protagonist. I might stand shoulder to shoulder with Dennis Taylor in his dismay at what he read but his way of making his case would not be mine. His is but one voice, one opinion and he seems to have lost sight of that fact in the midst of his indignation. I’d also like to know what he has in mind when he talks of people behind the decision to incorporate Water for Elephants, being fired or terminated from the School Board…

This apart, and for all that I accept the argument that it is ultimately for parents to teach their children how to process anything they might read, I too am unhappy with material of this type cropping up in schools.

I believe it’s yet another aspect of a Society that is fixated upon the groin. Sex is a wonderful thing and as much fair game for discussion as any other facet of life but are we so incapable of finding fulfilment elsewhere that we have to keep coming back to it in debate, like fat kids to a sweetshop? The sexualised bombardment we endure from the media seems to have spawned a belief that we can’t engage properly with life, through art or education, unless there is a sexual element to be addressed in there somewhere. I’m afraid I don’t buy it.

Film directors can protest until they are blue in the face but I maintain that you can count on one hand the films that would lose anything whatsoever were their sex scenes hinted at instead of graphically played out. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the latter option being taken occasionally but its absence wouldn’t diminish the film as art. I’m also a little older than 13.

Similarly, there’s an idea out there, it would appear, that unless children are regularly addressing sexuality while at school, their education is incomplete and they will trip out through the school gates at 16, a bunch of naive, vulnerable Pollyannas.

Unfortunately, the full-on, candid approach favoured by some educationalists  is resulting in something as bad, if not worse; a generation of youngsters who reach puberty under the impression that sex is just another commodity, like cigarettes or a loaf of bread.

That they should be left in no doubt as to what it involves and its consequences is not in dispute but I question whether sex education goes much beyond that nowadays, or is it deemed unwarranted interference to teach young people about the emotional context in which sex most comfortably sits?

The fact is, sex needs a little mystique. Not ignorance, I grant you, but a little reverence, magic, call it what you will. It’s a big deal, not least because of the huge physical and psychological backlash that can result when it’s indulged in callously or irresponsibly. You’re most definitely not just buying cigarettes here and merely showing a 12-year-old how condoms function doesn’t come close to ticking the ‘sex education’ box.

When you present books like Water for Elephants to young- or mid-teens and passages involving strippers, erections and tongues sliding around nipples are read out in class, you take another step towards commodifying sex. Once again, it is reduced to the everyday, the humdrum. No big deal; we even talk about in English. I would question whether sex-as-routine is a great mindset for any young person to carry into adult life.

Point is, I don’t think schools lose any credibility if they rise above this and refuse of their own accord to put literature on their programme that incorporates sexual content. In fact, if they did this already, I doubt we’d have heard a whisper of complaint from any quarter, because anyone objecting to a school’s insistence on being an oasis amid 21st century culture knows he or she would get some very odd looks indeed.

And if Water for Elephants and its like are such vital reading for this age group, I’m sure the authors, as creative artists, would consider themselves duty-bound to write an edited version for the younger audience.

Of course teenagers will read the racy stuff out of school hours. I can still remember reading Sven Hassel‘s WWII novels in my teens and being shocked to learn that it wasn’t my generation that invented the f-word. But it’s for parents to monitor that and act as they see fit. And it’s for teachers to know how to guide – not terminate, guide – the ensuing discussion when such extra-curricular reading material is mentioned in class.

We lose nothing if the bar gets raised whenever our children go to school, by a syllabus that keeps minds above the waist and sex confined to biology lessons, where it’s presented as more than just an exercise in mechanics. For just a few hours each day, kids would get to study art, literature, history, philosophy and science and have their minds opened to the possibility that satisfied living revolves around so much more than just the genitals.

If that sounds ‘repressive’, some Nashua Telegraph commenters may be pleasantly surprised by its long-term consequences.


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