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Monday, December 20, 2010

Proceed with caution when banning books

Telegraph Editorial

Most of the controversies that bring parents to complain about books in the classroom revolve around sexual content. We’ve seen a few of those over the years in southern New Hampshire.

But the controversy surrounding a book used in a Bedford High School personal finance class stems more from the book’s perspective on economics. While critics of the book may claim that obscenities or references to Jesus Christ as a “wine-guzzling socialist” are of concern, the key issue is the author’s point of view on capitalism and the exploitation of the working poor.

Parents who oppose the book suggest that students instead be offered alternatives such as Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations,” both paeans to capitalism and free enterprise, making clear that the economic message is what triggered their protest.

There is certainly plenty of room to debate the difference in perspectives between Ayn Rand and Barbara Ehrenreich, author of “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.” But no one should suggest that students be shielded from either one.

There may be good reasons to question whether Ehrenreich’s book is appropriate for a personal finance class, whether it should be mandatory or optional reading, whether it should be used in the school at all.

But there are probably plenty of parents in Bedford who feel their children could benefit from reading about what it’s like to survive on minimum wage.

These decisions shouldn’t be made solely on the basis of who shouts the loudest. Complaints from one set of parents or one group of parents should not be sufficient to override the curriculum decisions of the teachers and administrators we hire to run our school system.

The parents who protested Ehrenreich’s books don’t represent all parents and students in Bedford. That’s what the School Board was elected to do.

Dennis Taylor and his wife, Aimee, asked the school district to review the book in October. They have since removed their son from Bedford High and are teaching him at home.

The Bedford School Board and Superintendent Tim Mayes have been measured in their response. Mayes met with staff and reviewed the use of the book and its relation to the course objectives.

The issue is somewhat moot at this point, because the book is no longer in use. It has “run its course” in the program, Mayes said, and will be fully evaluated before it is introduced again, either as required or optional reading.

As we reported last week, the goal is to have the school district Curriculum Committee make a final recommendation before the second semester begins Jan. 24.

Even though this is the first time Bedford High School has had to deal with a book-banning request, the school system appears to have a process in place that will allow for an open-minded review and more input before a decision is made.

That’s a good thing, because not everyone in Bedford agrees with the Taylors and their supporters.

At a public hearing last week, opposition to the book banning was strong among some students.

Jordan Dempsey, senior class president at Bedford High, said the accusations against it were “absurd.” Chad Johansen, also a senior at Bedford High and member of the student government, said the book “sparked discussion about the working poor.”

We agree with Daniel Rosenbaum, a Bedford resident and member of the Curriculum Committee, who said no matter what people think of the book, the process to remove it should not be easy.

We’ll let him have the last word: “No matter how just you are in wanting a book to be removed, it takes time to get other parents and representatives involved,” he said. “It should go through some process like this, and I think it’s moving at an appropriate speed.”