Black Marks All Round
Bill Boyd on censorship, curriculum and citizenship.
Away back in the dark ages of the late 1980s, when I was a young and idealistic Head of English in a secondary school, I was taken aback when a story reached me of an act of censorship for which I was not prepared. Our headteacher, with whom I had a good relationship, had been driving across the country the previous weekend when he chanced upon a radio discussion about ‘Forever’, Judy Blume’s novel for young teens. The book was apparently sexually explicit (it isn’t really) and was causing quite a stir. The following day he happened to walk into a class where one of the girls was reading the book, demanded that she hand it over, and returned it to the library with the instruction that it should be removed from the shelves. Word quickly got round, and within a few weeks there was hardly a girl, and very few boys, who hadn’t read it.
As an English teacher, you expect to challenge young people in their reading and you expect them to challenge themselves, within safe limits. Sometimes you might even expect to have to defend your choices to parents or the wider community. It comes with the territory, and it is part of developing the consensus of acceptability. What you don’t expect, is to be undermined by the very person who should be leading the charge for independent thinking and freedom of expression.
There were so many worrying aspects of the story of the Scottish headteacher who was in the news last week for banning the award-winning drama ‘Black Watch’ in her school, but none more so than the response of the local authority. Even as parents were demanding their children’s rights to study the play, which appears on the SQA’s list of recommended drama texts, an Angus Council spokesperson insisted that there was in fact no ban, and that the class had simply ‘chosen to study another text’.
‘Move along please; nothing to see here’, would have been just as convincing, and would at least have provided some comic relief.
Of the headteacher herself we learn very little, other than reports of her ‘evangelical beliefs’, an expression made to set alarm bells ringing if ever there was one, with one national newspaper describing the reasons for the censorship as ‘sexual content’ and ‘bad language’. I’m assuming on that basis that Shakespeare wouldn’t even get a look in. It is difficult to imagine the sexual content which would be shocking or new to young people with Google at their disposal, and ‘bad language’ is one of those journalistic clichés which presumably means ‘inappropriate language’.
The banning of books is not new of course, particularly in those parts of the world where religious puritanism still has a strong grip. Perhaps Jane Esson has friends in Kansas, where last week also the State Senate approved a bill which would allow prosecutors to bring charges to teachers and school administrators for assigning or distributing materials judged harmful to students . The bill was introduced by the Republican state senator Mary Pilcher-Cook, who says it is necessary to prevent the distribution of pornography in schools, a situation which ‘has not previously arisen’, while fellow Republican, senator Joseph Scapa, cited as an example of pornography a novel by Nobel Literature winner Toni Morrison, proving apparently that he is well-read and not-very-well-read at the same time.
I haven’t seen Black Watch but my guess is that the language is entirely appropriate, and not half as shocking as actually killing people, or, for example, dismantling historic Scottish regiments for political reasons while pretending that it’s in the best interests of the nation’s security. Perhaps we should be appointing headteachers who will be evangelical in making sure our young people are seekers of truth and justice.
One of the four key purposes of Curriculum for Excellence is to ensure that our young people develop into ‘responsible citizens’. Some people believe that the way to do that is to tell them how to behave and how to speak, and to provide them with moral absolutes. Appropriately enough, the study of great literature teaches them that there is no such thing, and that the best you can do is to keep an open mind and think for yourself.