"The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien is among the books that have been banned in schools on political, racial, social and religious grounds. “Many of these books are classics for a reason,” David Kilby writes. Stock photo
 

"The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien is among the books that have been banned in schools on political, racial, social and religious grounds. “Many of these books are classics for a reason,” David Kilby writes. Stock photo

 

“Some years ago – never mind how long precisely,” I attended a board of education meeting as a journalist, covering a story about the use of R-rated films in class lessons at a local high school.

There was a long line of students, parents and teachers who addressed the board because they were perturbed by the agenda of a small group of parents and local papers to expunge these R-rated films from classrooms. In their eyes, the agenda of this vastly outnumbered group of parents and local papers constituted everything typical of censorship – the likes of which, in their minds it seemed, hasn’t been seen in America’s public schools since the time of Melville, whose first line to his classic Moby Dick I stole to begin this column – and which, by the way, is one of many classics more often not taught in public schools than it is.

The real issue at this board of education meeting was not that the district was showing R-rated films to high school students under 17. It was more about what they were not showing. School boards include very questionable material in their curriculum, claiming that we need to expose students to the harsh realities of our world in order to prepare them. What that logic fails to acknowledge, though, is that there is a fair number of classic works omitted from these curriculums that could teach the same lessons. They’re lessons in humanity, and unless something stands the test of time, which most R-rated films have not done, there is no guarantee that a film, book, song, or anything else can adequately teach the timeless truths that resurface in every age.

“Truths like what?” you may ask. I’d say like the difference between good and evil, the dilemma of choosing one good over another good and suffering the consequence, human dignity expressed in every era, the value in pursuing virtue for its own sake, and so on. These truths and more are often ignored in today’s classrooms because of the sensitivities of our age, and we claim to know better than our forefathers as we toss out their pearls of wisdom to make room for our own – not seeing how stuck in our own time we truly are.

That board of education meeting reminded me of the time I discovered in my own high school’s library a curious series of books, substantial in size, listing all of the works of literature typically banned in public schools.

There were lists of books banned on political, racial, social and religious grounds. What books are commonly on at least one of these lists? “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Canterbury Tales,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” to name a few. Many of these books are classics for a reason. It’s because they teach timeless truths in a way nothing else since has succeeded in doing. They are part of America’s cultural fabric, so much so that students can’t fully understand what they are a part of if they don’t know the characters in these books, among many others not taught in public school.

Now my intention here is not to show how censorship is a problem in the American public school system. It actually is not the problem, because a school does not have to censor a book in order not to teach it. It simply has to avoid assigning it as reading material. No curriculum can be comprehensive in the books it assigns students to read. The school year, in fact even 16 school years combined, simply do not provide enough time. The curriculum has to be selective. So the issue is not what schools leave out of their curriculums. It’s what they put in. Now that the issue has been framed properly, I have to ask, given such a limited amount of time to expose students to the great works of our culture, R-rated films? Really?

Movies are made to be entertainment, and whatever educational value they have is at best secondary. I am not so concerned about my tax dollars being used to entertain children at school, but if they are going to class to be educated, I am concerned if they are not being educated.

Furthermore, many people cry “censorship!” to dodge the real issue, saying that if we campaign to forbid the showing of R-rated films in schools, we are curmudgeons and fuddy-duddies; but if we simply choose not to teach the classics in school, we are just updating our curriculum to have it reflect more modern themes. It’s time we took a closer look at the wisdom from our past. It’s time to do a more thorough assessment of what we’d like to teach our children. A society can be judged by what it chooses to pass on. What will we pass on through our classrooms?

David Kilby is a freelance writer for The Monitor. He attends St. Mary Parish, Barnegat.  He can be reached at kilbyfreelancer@gmail.com.