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Perspective: Parents are right to be concerned about what kids read

The adults in the room — if any are left — need to figure out how to talk about controversial books

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Alex Cochran, Deseret News

If you haven’t read “The Crack Cocaine Diet,” do yourself a favor and don’t read it. Not just because it suggests to teenage girls that they should use crack cocaine for weight loss, but also because it glorifies murder and dangerous sexual behavior. I had to read it as a young journalist in New Hampshire, when I was asked to cover a school board meeting where parents were trying to “ban books.” 

My editor, like most journalists, was anti-book banning and pro-free speech. I have some sympathy for that position, but my sympathy did not withstand reading “The Crack Cocaine Diet.”

It was truly terrible. 

The mothers who testified at the school board meeting said the high school English teacher who assigned the short story, part of a collection called “Hardly Knew Her,” did so because she believed her students would only read sensational material. This was before the smartphone era, but already teachers were battling for their students’ attention in the Internet age. 

Still, that struck me as a bad reason to assign this short story to a group of teenagers. But this points to a problem because the idea of “book banning” is really unpopular. 

In the just-released American Family Survey, only 12% of respondents said books should be removed from a public school library if parents object. We don’t know, however, whether people would feel the same way if they were asked specific questions — like if they support books with sexually explicit content in schools — but still, in survey after survey, “book banning” is not popular. 

What is popular, according to the survey, is parental say in what books children are assigned in school, and parental say in what is taught, especially on subjects such as sexual and gender identity. Survey respondents listed parents as their top choice, at 32%, for having the final say on what books are taught in English class, and half of respondents said parents should have the final say in how sexual orientation and gender identity are taught in schools.

But despite the surge in attention and support for greater parental rights when it comes to their children’s education, conservatives are not winning the “war on books.”

That said, no matter what public perception is, public schools are already places where library books and course materials are curated. This is true whether the curation is because of cultural insensitivity or sexually explicit material, or just plain old personal taste. You cannot fit every book into a school library, or on a high school class book list, so choices are made about what makes it in and what doesn’t.

Pretending otherwise is dishonest. 

As parents, it’s our responsibility to keep an eye on what our children are learning, and to ask whether what they are taught helps them become better educated, better prepared for meaningful citizenship and better humans. We will all have different answers on what content accomplishes these goals, but when “public” school materials become so politicized that they are alienating a large swath of the population, chances are we are not on the right track. 

We live in a pluralistic society, and library and course material should reflect our diversity, whether we’re talking about cultural diversity or viewpoint diversity. There is a way to do that and still honor the need for responsible limits. When it feels like school libraries and course content are curated to push a political agenda — in this case, a left-leaning agenda — why wouldn’t that raise parents’ hackles? The same holds true if content is curated to push a right-leaning agenda. 

It is also true that one can celebrate free speech and still believe that not every book belongs in a K-12 public school library. We’ve often differentiated what is appropriate for children versus what is appropriate for adults. When public school librarians celebrate a “banned” book that contains graphic illustrations of sex between a minor and an adult, and parents are labeled “far-right” or “bigots” for objecting, that feels like gaslighting. 

There are also examples of support for book bans coming from the left. For example, when the Burbank Unified School District in California removed several classic books from required reading lists, including “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Of Mice and Men,” they did so over concerns about depictions of racism and the use of racist language.

In a healthy society, a little back-and-forth between people with different points of view is what can and should help us get to a better place. But in an unhealthy society, where we’ve stopped listening to and trusting each other, that gets much more difficult. 

Challenges to course material, including books, that have come from the right and left are not bad in and of themselves. There are typically well-defined processes in school districts for challenging and reviewing books in public schools. These processes provide the opening for conversations about the material we’re choosing for our students, and what our goals are when we choose what they read, look at and learn. Following these procedures in a civil manner can foster greater trust in the public education system.

A consequence of these recent battles over education is that conservatives are losing faith in public schools. A recent Gallup poll shows that only 14% of Republicans have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in public schools, compared to 29% of independents and 43% of Democrats. 

It shouldn’t be this lopsided, and attempts to blame Republicans for their lack of faith in public schools misses the point. If public schools are to be a unifying force in our republic, they can’t be responsive to just one-half of the population. Getting angry at parents for speaking out and raising concerns, whether about how gender and sexuality is taught, or how history is taught, or about stories like “The Crack Cocaine Diet,” will not heal this divide.