Monday, October 29, 2007

Teaching the Truth

To support the students campaigning against the censorship of The Prince of Tides and Beach Music in Nitro, West Virginia, the books’ author, Pat Conroy, wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper that “scolds censors [and] praises teachers and students.”

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Conroy has had to defend teachers who sought to teach his works. In 1988, Conroy penned a similar letter to the editor of the Charleston, South Carolina, News and Courier, praising another teacher who had added Prince of Tides to a list of optional readings for 11th-grade AP students.

The April 1992 English Journal article “Pat Conroy’s ‘Gutter Language’: Prince of Tides in a Lowcountry High School” (please forgive the low quality of the scan please) traces the story of the book’s challenge by a local preacher who “called the book ‘raw, filthy, raunchy pornography’ and ‘garbage that would gag a maggot’” (18).

As part of his response to the Charleston censorship case, the article explains, Conroy also visited the classroom of the teacher involved in the book challenge and talked with the class about writing. Conroy told the class: “[T]o write good fiction . . . one must be willing to write the truth and not to worry about what the public reaction will be” (19).

As I read that line, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if the same were true of teaching?” I would love to exclaim to the teachers of the world, “To be a good teacher, one must be willing to teach the truth and not to worry about what the public reaction will be.” Teachers must always worry about what the public reaction will be—from students, families, colleagues, administrators, school board members, and the local community.

Teaching the truth is not enough. The teacher’s mantra must be “To be a good teacher, one must be willing to teach the truth and always be ready to explain why the truth must be taught, especially in the case of the ugly and inconvenient truths of the world.”

If certain students or their families are compelled to hide from such truths, that’s their prerogative, but, as The Students’ Right to Read explains, they should not have the right to impose their will upon the larger community. Teachers have the responsibility of making sure that students’ right to read is protected.

Our best option is to be prepared. “What Do I Do Now? Where to Turn When You Face a Censor,” from the NCTE book Preserving Intellectual Freedom: Fighting Censorship in Our Schools, provides scenarios and the related resources that fit the different kinds of challenges. To write your own rationales, follow the detailed instructions in the SLATE Rationales for Teaching Challenged Books.

Rationales for Challenged Books CDCheck out the NCTE/IRA Rationales for Challenged Books CD (Volume One and Volume Two) for ready-made rationales for dozens of books. And finally, for even more advice, rationales, and other resources to help with challenges to literary works, films and videos, drama productions, or teaching methods, visit the NCTE Anti-Censorship Center.


Charles Nelson said...

Although I agree in principle that all, including teachers, should speak the truth, no one, including teachers, has a monopoly on the truth. In fact, for most people, what is true depends on whether they like what's being said, and what is accepted as true depends on a community's belief system.

Actually, it's not possible for one or a few parents to impose their will on the larger community. It is the school board (which represents the community) that can direct a teacher to include or exclude particular books. This is no different from the Supreme Court in which just 5 people (a majority vote) can impose their interpretation of the law on the U.S. community. Once the Supreme Court speaks, lower courts and the government have to listen. Similarly, once a school board or administrator speaks, teachers have to listen. Teachers do not have veto rights over those who hired them. If they did, How would you feel if a biology teacher who believed in creationism decided to defy the administrators, the school board, and the community to teach what s/he thought was the truth. Or what about an English teacher who wanted to teach the Bible not as literature but as the word of God?

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think Mr Nelson has hit the nail on the head. There are many interpretations and perceptions of truth and which one is "right" has, and continues to be, a point of sometimes brutal contention. I am reminded of a Poem by William Stafford called, "The Lit Professor"; in it is the line:

"I communicate right; but explain to the dean—
well, Right has a long and intricate name.

And the saying of it is a lonely thing."

This remains, for me, one version of the truth.