A tough but wise decision about book banning

Joe Nathan column — Having objected, as a parent, to some public school assignments our children were given, I respect concerns a district 196 (Rosemount/Apple Valley/Eagan) parent raised recently.  

She asked that a book be removed from her youngster’s elementary school library. Some of the most difficult decisions I had to make as a teacher and school administrator involved the clash of rights.  So I felt for both sides.

But I think that the district committee made the right decision last week, not to ban a book from an elementary school library. In this case, students  have rights to learn about various ideas, schools have responsibilities to help students learn, and parents have rights to restrict information that is presented to their children.   

Minnesota legislators have recognized each of these by giving families the right to ask for and receive an alternative assignment if they object to the content of a particular lesson.  This right was used a few years ago when a parent in another district objected to a movie that the students were being asked to view.  The district appropriately provided an alternative assignment for the youngster.

As an educator and parent of three youngsters who attended and graduated from Minnesota public schools, I’ve seen this issue from both sides.  At one point, our (high school) youngsters asked about the reading list in a 20th century literature class.  The books seemed heavily weighted toward presenting the views of one particular religion.  The teacher was not receptive to expanding the list.

We were OK with having our children read a book that presented a religion other than our own as “the true faith.”  But we wanted them to read books that presented other views too. We felt a class or the school itself should not promote one religion.

Ultimately the school principal agreed.   So our youngsters read and reported on several books.  They gained from reading different perspectives.

Another time I questioned a final exam that a student teacher gave our youngsters.  The students had studied Africa for a month.  The final exam had one question.  Students were given a map of Africa and asked to write in the names of each country and its capitol.

It seemed to me that this was not a wise or thoughtful way to determine what they had learned.  I’m not opposed to youngsters knowing where Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria or Chad are.  But I think a fair test of a month’s work should be more than just filling out a map.  The school ruled that the teacher had the right to give the exam she designed. I still disagree.

For me, the question comes down, in part to whether youngsters have choices of books to read, or movies to view. Students should not be forced to read a particular library book, or  view a particular movie, if parents object.  

The ISD 196 student had a choice.  The district is wise to offer, and protect that choice. A parent should be able to restrict what her/his youngster reads.  But parents should not be able to impose their views on other youngsters. District 196 made the right decision.

Joe Nathan, a former public school teacher and school administrator, directs the Center for School Change at Macalester College.  He welcomes reactions, jnathan@macalester.edu

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