It seems that school boards have never fully learned their lesson about the banning of books. The latest example comes from Asheboro, North Carolina, where the Randolph County school board first pulled copies of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man from the school library, only to reverse itself in the face of public reaction (" 'Invisible Man' ban rescinded by North Carolina school board," Los Angeles Times, Sept. 26).
The board initially banned the book when the mother of a high school junior complained about the language and depictions of rape and incest. What's so disturbing is that it took only one complaint for the board to act. But this has been the pattern for too long across the country. Typically, one parent or a small group of parents voice outrage, and the board immediately capitulates. I'm glad when parents are involved in their children's education, but not when a minority rules.
I know that young people are highly impressionable, but I also believe that the freedom to read is sacrosanct. (It's ironic that the Randolph County board reversed itself in the middle of the annual Banned Books Week that is sponsored nationally by the American Library Assn.) The question, therefore, is how to reconcile the two. This is precisely where teachers come in. The best teachers know how to present all sides of controversial issues. They're not afraid of introducing their students to ideas that challenge pre-existing beliefs and values. In fact, they are committed to the process because they understand the difference between education and indoctrination.
But it takes courage to stand fast in the face of intense opposition that can lead to dismissal ("Stripping Teachers of Freedom of Speech," Education Week, Oct. 27, 2010). Tenure does not offer protection against termination. The court made that clear in Evans-Marshall v. Board of Education of the Tipp City Exempted Village School District in 2010 when it wrote: "Only the school board has ultimate responsibility for what goes on in the classroom ... ."
Students today are exposed to images and ideas never before as readily available. Rather than try to shield them, it's the job of schools to help them evaluate such material. I don't understand what is so threatening about that strategy.