Recently, the city of Chicago has found itself scrambling to explain why Marjane Satrapi’s acclaimed graphic novel Persepolis was targeted for removal from its public school classrooms. Because this is a grade school ban, it falls outside of FIRE’s focus on higher education, and our friends at the National Coalition Against Censorship have more on the particulars of the ban and the ensuing debate. But I wanted to quickly highlight an excellent commentary in The Atlantic by Noah Berlatsky that articulates the pedagogical cost exacted when school administrators at any level choose the path of least offense. Analyzing Chicago’s misstep, Berlatsky makes a useful larger point about education:
The truth is, outside of arithmetic, it’s hard to teach anything worth learning that someone won’t find offensive or upsetting or frightening or off-putting. If it’s interesting, if it’s something people care about, then people are going to have opinions about it. That means somebody, somewhere, isn’t going to like it. The drive to keep our children perfectly safe from dangerous knowledge just ends up reducing their education to a bland, boring, irrelevant slog.
And, again, you start to suspect that this is the point. As in the Iranian regime that Satrapi describes, where art students are only allowed to do figure drawing sketches of women covered in a head-to-toe chador, the aim of American education too often seems to be a quite deliberate ignorance. The revolutionary guards patrol the classrooms not to make sure you learn something about the real world, but to make sure you don’t.
So we’re faced with a choice. Do we want to micromanage our schools for ideological purity? Or do we want kids to learn something — even, sometimes, something with which we might disagree? If we want the first, we should keep on as we’re keeping on. If we want the second, we need to stop being so worried that teachers might teach the wrong thing that we don’t let them teach anything at all.
Berlatsky’s warning about the impact of isolating students from any possible offense is of real relevance for administrators overseeing our nation’s college campuses. Too often, the censorship FIRE combats is born of an arguably well-intentioned desire to shield students from the discomfort caused by encountering ideas with which they may not agree—indeed, ideas they may even strongly oppose. But it’s precisely in encountering, engaging, and recalibrating or defusing those ideas that educational benefit may be found.