• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming, home schooling, and building our own house. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 18/Grade 12, 16/Grade 11, and 14/Grade 10.

    Contact me at becky(dot)farmschool(at)gmail(dot)com

  • Notable Quotables

    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "‘Never look at an ugly thing twice. It is fatally easy to get accustomed to corrupting influences."
    English architect CFA Voysey (1857-1941)

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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Banned Books Week: Day 5: Running with scissors

There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/ Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/FourSquareGospel, feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.

Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by the minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from the book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the library closed forever.

from the 1979 Coda appended by Ray Bradbury to his Fahrenheit 451, originally published in 1953

* * *

One of the main subjects of Banned Books Week is censorship, and the right to read books uncensored, particularly in schools and libraries. The American Library Association (ALA) on its Banned Book Week website has a link to What You Can Do to Fight Censorship and Keep Books Available in Your Libraries, and another website refers to the week as “an annual anti-censorship campaign”. So I liked what I read at Chicago’s Loyola University libraries’ website:

The message of Banned Books Week is more than the freedom to choose, the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular. The essential message of Banned Books Week is the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them.

So why do we cry censorship when a mother objects to a book with wizards and pentagrams in the school library or a school board yanks Shakespeare for sexual content, but not when publishers, authors, and sometimes illustrators get involved to give the title character a makeover and a new name, as in the case of The Story of Little Black Sambo*; or when some of the characters and dialogue are changed, as in the case of The Story of Doctor Dolittle**; or when titles are silently dropped from publishing lists? It’s enough to make Thomas Bowdler proud.

Little more than a year ago, Britain’s Commission for Racial Equality urged that Tintin in the Congo be removed from bookstore shelves: “It beggars belief that in this day and age Borders would think it acceptable to sell and display Tintin in the Congo. High street shops, and indeed any shops, ought to think very carefully about whether they ought to be selling and displaying it.” In response to which Borders in the UK and in the US agreed to move the title away from children’s delicate eyes to the adult graphic novels section. Finally, last October, publisher Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, which had been planning to publish Tintin in the Congoquietly pulled” the title from its fall list, as Publishers Weekly reported, and said it would not include the book in a forthcoming box set of all 24 books in the Tintin series. The response to the news was fairly quiet, too. We have, of course, only recently revisited the condemnation of Babar, friend to many (generally children) but foe to others (generally adults).

And what of the “updated and sanitised” Enid Blyton? Blyton’s biographer, Barbara Stoney, wrote a very funny but bang-on article two years ago, “Row faster, George! The PC meddlers are chasing us!”:

New editions of the Famous Five have been tampered with. The publishers are apparently planning to relaunch the Malory Towers, St Clare’s and Secret Seven series next year and are talking, ominously, about ‘slight alterations’. ..

Meanwhile, in the Faraway Tree stories, Fanny and Dick have been bowdlerised into Frannie and Rick presumably because their original names might provoke covert sniggers in school playgrounds. …

Even the semantics of Blyton’s stories are being picked over, word by word. ‘Queer’ has become ‘odd’ and ‘gay’ is translated as ‘happy’, while ‘biscuits’ have been usurped by ‘cookies’ in an unsuccessful attempt to appeal to an American audience.

How utterly ridiculous it all is. Blyton wrote the bulk of her fiction in the Forties and Fifties. The settings and the characters’ names and attitudes reflect the time in which they were written.

How absurdly anachronistic, then, to have a contemporary Pippa and Zoe munching ‘cookies’ in a post-war kitchen where a maid bustles around filling a picnic hamper. If we start to tinker with the text and characters, we must also alter the settings.

Where will it all end? The whole Blyton oeuvre will have to be rewritten to appease the muddled thinking of a politically-correct minority who believe children cannot make an imaginative leap into the past. …

Her current critics have not allowed for the books being written within the context of her time. She wrote about the childhood she knew, which was dependably middle-class, and she peopled her fiction with characters that belonged to the era in which she lived.

In The Adventurous Four, she wrote about a 15-year-old boy called Andy who worked with his father full-time, as a fisherman.

It has evidently been decided that Andy should, in fact, be in full-time education, so the story now ensures that he is not guilty of reprehensible truancy. Now he is at his school desk all day and only helps Dad at weekends.

What patent absurdity! Next we’ll be expurgating Dickens to take out all references to child labour. We’ll have Oliver Twist pursuing a full-time education until the age of 16, before leaving to take up a ‘work experience’ post with Mr Sowerberry the undertaker. ..

The Famous Five are famously intrepid explorers. One adventure takes them into the dank recesses of a series of caves. Surely they shouldn’t be permitted to take such unwarranted risks? What of the danger of falling rocks, hypothermia or, worse, predatory pederasts?

These days, no self-respecting mother would allow four preadolescent youngsters and their dog to wander through subterranean caverns without responsible adult supervision, safety hats and satellite phones.

Surely the errant Five should be safely at home, experiencing their adventures vicariously through their computer screens?

Well, of course they shouldn’t. Children, by and large, want to be thrilled and excited by stories that move ineluctably towards a happy ending. Even Blyton’s sternest critics concede that her talent is to engross the most recalcitrant or tentative young reader in tales that do just that: in Blyton, the good reliably triumph and the bad are punished. …

Blyton is not, of course, universally revered by all young readers. But almost 40 years after her death, she still enjoys a huge following.

There’s even a new Famous Five book, inspired by The Dangerous Book for Boys, sort of an Enid Blyton meets “Survivor”; BBC’s News Magazine recently pondered “the mystery of Enid Blyton’s survival” despite “an author whose writing has long been accused of being too simple or even poor in style, bossy and sexist”.

Intriguing that most of the books selected for facelifts seem to be children’s books. In her own article on Babar and the surrounding controversy, in The New York Review of Books in 2004, writer Alison Lurie pointed out that, “Like many would-be censors, [Herbert] Kohl has a low opinion of children’s ability to think and judge for themselves as he once did”; she was referring to what Kohl had written in Should We Burn Babar? Essays on Children’s Literature and the Power of Stories, that though he had found the elephant king “charming and wonderful” as a child, he nevertheless as an adult believes that “uncritical reading of the book is so potentially damaging that it should be withheld from children when possible.”

I’ve found in the five years we’ve been home schooling that a number of the older books, from novels such as the Little House series to H.E. Marshall’s Our Island Story, from my own childhood and which that my children now enjoy, cherish, or find useful are often dismissed on the more secular home educating lists as Eurocentric, sexist, racist, ethnocentrist, or just generally politically incorrect and oppressive. If I were letting the children swallow whole the outdated opinions that we know now to be wrong and incorrect, that would be one thing. But how better to understand the thoughts and opinions of the time, compared to our own times and sensibilities, and how better for children to learn the power of words and ideas, and the power of freedom? I don’t think we do our children any favors by feeding them expurgated pap (and I’m not talking about good quality abridged editions here), or even worse, banning the books outright, and glossing over the honest details of other eras.

A few years ago, in a post about several reprinted history books, I quoted historian Antonia Fraser on the aforementioned Our Island Story. Of the new edition, she wrote,

The book is also great in the sense that it shines a light into the nature of the times in which it was written. Anyone thinking of giving it to their children might also think about explaining to the child the fact that it was published in a different age. The fact is that attitudes towards people have changed

Similarly, writing about the school/text book business in The Language Police, Diane Ravitch concluded,

The goal of the language police is not just to stop us from using objectionable words but to stop us from having objectionable thoughts. The language police believe that reality follows language usage. If they can stop people from ever seeing offensive words and ideas, they can prevent them from having the thought or committing the act that the words signify. … If children read and hear only language that has been cleaned of any mean or hurtful words, they will never have a mean or hurtful thought. …

It [censorship] should be abhorrent to those who care about freedom of thought, to those who believe that minds grow sharper by contending with challenging ideas. How boring for students to be restricted only to stories that flatter their self-esteem or that purge complexity and unpleasant reality from history and current events. How weird for them to see television programs and movies that present life in all its confusing and sometimes unpleasant fullness, then to read textbooks in which language, ideas, and behavior have been scrubbed of anything that might give offense. How utterly vapid to expect that adolescents want to see themselves in everything they read, as if they have no capacity to imagine worlds that extend beyond their own limited experience, as if they will be emotionally undone by learning about the world as it is.

At a time when an industry has grown up around the idea of teaching children to think critically, one of the worst things we can do is to discount children’s abilities and remove the need for them to develop reasoned thought and careful judgment. Or to teach children that the way to deal with disagreeable thoughts is to censor them. Much better to teach them to debate those thoughts and strengthen their arguments.

* Little Black Sambo, written and illustrated by Helen Bannerman, unexpurgated edition

** The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting, unexpurgated edition, at Project Gutenberg; audiobook versions at LibriVox and Project Gutenberg

3 Responses

  1. Good points, but there are still things to be critical about and not everyone has access to other knowledge to bring to the table. Which is one problem with reducing the issue to censorship because that is an either/or. How do we broaden discussion of these very real issues? Yes, take children’s ability to deal with ambiguity, complexity, historical context, etc seriously, but what does that mean, in practice.

    I suspect somewhere in there is a critique of publishers who would rather reprint old books that they know sell well (with new “updated” covers or illustrations, perhaps) rather than really support new authors and the creation of new fiction of high quality.

    But there is also the issue of historical literacy. How many of them know anything about the historical situation in the Congo? Or even that TinTin is a Belgian comic book and that the Belgians were the colonial power in the Congo, something that is likely to affect the representation? (Most people seem to think it is French.) I think your account here demonstrates the importance of teaching children to really grapple with historical context. But this is something missing from a lot of elementary social studies education, I think. And something many parents have never thought about.

    And then there is the reduction of “literacy” to some instrumental ability to decode words on a page to be able to speak them out loud with a bit of surface comprehension thrown in. The sort of literacy that you discuss here, the sort that involves really grasping with multiple meanings and the inability of the author (or the censoring editor) to control the meanings of a text completely are absent from much of the education debate more broadly, and certainly absent from education policy. In fact, much of the backlash against both PC and the teaching of education theory to trainee teachers is about denigrating the very academic disciplines and inter-disciplines that are engaged in that kind of complex reading of texts. The straw “women’s studies prof” that gets brought out in public debates doesn’t look much like any of the many women’s studies profs that I actually have met in real life.

    But, and this happens even within women’s studies, that brings us back to the rather tricky political problem of how we engage in these debates without falling back into debates about censorship. And sometimes, folks who have no interest in censorship are accused of it precisely because their interlocutors are incapable of seeing the problem in any other terms. To raise questions about certain representations becomes, to some audiences, to demand censorship.

    A tricky problem indeed. But your contribution seems like part of the solution.

    I also wonder about introductions or appendices or something in new editions to provide that contextual knowledge for parents who would like to have it.

  2. Thanks, Becky, for all your Banned Books posts. I’m enjoying them a great deal, as this is a topic dear to my heart. And I have to say… I’m very glad we have editions of the Faraway books that still have Fanny and Dick climbing up and sliding down.

    Also, we do have a copy of TinTin in the Congo… but in French. It seems that the French publisher finds it less offensive than the English publisher. Or maybe, in French, the racist bits don’t come through the same way?

    Also, we have a newer copy of Dr. Doolittle that has been meddled with. I don’t really mind as the term changed is racist and can be considered derogatory; however, I also think that it’s good to talk about these things with children in context – especially in the context of good, classic literature. We don’t need thought police – we just need to be thoughtful and present with our kids.

  3. JoVE, I’ve long been a fan of author’s notes, and I like them best at the front of the book, rather than stuck on at the back. At the front they have a chance of getting read, especially before the main event.

    Rebecca! I have an email for you, since I couldn’t leave a comment on your last post. There’s a lot that doesn’t bother the French as much as it bothers the rest of the world… And, more seriously, they’re very good at discussing and debating these things without getting hot under the color. Debate as sport, really.

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