Columns » John Brummett

Seeking a culture war cease-fire

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Let’s check back on that culture war in Fayetteville, the one about books that puts academic independence on one front line and parental responsibility on the other. A wise three-pronged solution seems possible, but is hardly assured. The first prong is to let everyone have a public say. Borrowing a tactic from a similar furor a couple of years ago in the giant Fairfax School District in the affluent Virginia suburbs of Washington, D. C., Fayetteville school officials plan a town hall meeting — i.e., venting session — in mid-September. The risk is that the town meeting will so rekindle passions that the second and third prongs will be pre-empted. Let’s hope not. But in that regard, I’ll hazard a prediction. It is that the cultural left’s rhetoric that night will be every bit as unreasonable as the right’s. Actually, that wouldn’t be anything new. Here’s an example of what I mean: You will remember that Fayetteville school officials agreed on three books initially cited as improper by Laurie Taylor. This was before she started complaining about dozens of other books, some of them acclaimed novels, and many seeming to arise from hit lists compiled as part of a national right-wing censorship movement. Because of their strong sexual references, those first three books cited by Taylor were put in a restricted library section where they could be checked out only by parents. Now, members of the School Board are enduring left-wing pressure to reverse even that decision. That is to say that some on the cultural left take essentially this position: Yes, I still have the right under this new policy to go to the library and check out these three books with strong sexual context for my children. But I’m not satisfied with that. I insist that all kids in the schools must be able to check out those books without their parents knowing about it and whether their parents like it or not. The problem here is when one parent presumes to raise the other parent’s kids. And that seems to go both ways. Actually, there’s another way to describe the problem. It is when one side so believes in its principles that it insists its principles must prevail over practicality. That one seems to go both ways, too. But a wise man once told me, “Sometimes you have to rise above principle.” Here’s an extreme example of that: Israelis banishing their own people from long-treasured settlements. If no one ever rose above principle, we’d all look like Iraqis trying to draft a constitution. If the town meeting can be survived, these would be the two other prongs: 1. A special committee appointed by the superintendent would exist permanently to study systematically any and all books that Taylor or other parents found objectionable. The committee would determine on a case-by-case basis whether books should be placed on parent-only access. The committee would have final say-so. Presumably, no existing texts would be banned outright. 2. While agreeing to leave the review responsibility and authority entirely to the committee, the Fayetteville School Board would reserve for itself only policy. And one of those policies would be for the school district to avail itself of existing computer software by which parents so inclined could submit lists to librarians of books they did not want the library allowing their children to check out. There might be delays at the check-out lines. Both sides could claim partial victory. Both sides would have lingering dissatisfaction. Sounds like a winner to me.

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