Editorial, September 9, 1995 Post Dispatch


The self-appointed censors are as prevalent as ever in the nation's schools, according to People For The American Way's annual survey of what it calls "Attacks On The Freedom To Learn." From a California kindergarten parent who worried that Bert and Ernie promote homosexuality to the Cissy Lacks case in the Ferguson-Florissant School District in north St. Louis County, the study came up with 458 attempts to chill freedom of expression, often for the flimsiest of reasons. Educators and parents dedicated to an open exchange of ideas must remain on guard.

The Bert-and-Ernie example would be funny if it weren't so emblematic of how far some parents will stretch to see evil where it doesn't exist. The report says a parent in Sawyers Bar, Calif., objected to kindergartners' viewing "Sesame Street" because the two Muppets live together - a situation the complaining parent said promotes homosexuality. The teacher agreed to tape and monitor each program before letting children view it, and even though Bert and Ernie discuss different types of families in one episode, it was deemed acceptable.

Half of the censorship attempts follow the same pattern: off-the-wall objection, investigation and review, and finally a denial of the request. Even those, however, take up valuable time that could be more profitably used in teaching students.

More troublesome, of course, is the material that actually is banned or altered, like Neil Simon's play "The Odd Couple" in Granby, Mo. In one high school performance, even the word "darn" was excised because a grandparent complained about language and the glorification of alcohol and drugs. The drama teacher quit after the school year ended, saying, "I'm not going to teach where I'm not trusted."

When movies like "Schindler's List" and "Rain Man" are criticized as inappropriate material for high school students; when celebrated authors like Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, Mark Twain and Lois Lowry have their books picked apart by people looking for imaginary problems; when a teacher like Ms. Lacks can be fired for trying to get students to write what they feel - no wonder educators feel they are constantly suspect.

No one is saying that parents should not be involved in their children's education. Everyone must realize, however, that school is a place to open your mind, to see if old beliefs can stand up to intellectual challenges.

The freedom to learn can thrive only in an atmosphere of openness and trust, not one where every new idea must battle to be heard.