Sunday, November 6, 2011

Censorship @Horace Mann?

A funny thing happens when you allow students the freedom to express themselves. They actually do.

At the Horace Mann School in New York, students expressed themselves graphically and racially in an assembly designed to highlight their poetry in front of a group of invited poets. The visiting poets, known for works which discuss controversial topics, sat onstage behind the students as they randomly read words and phrases to the assembled, some of which included common derogatory terms for gay people and people of color.

The visiting poets set the tone for the assembly by reading one of their poems that included graphic and provocative language, some of which appeared in the students' follow-up, collaborative writing. A student in the article notes that more offensive language has been heard in the hallways of the school.

While I don't condone (and cannot stomach) racial and homophobic epithets personally, I am more dismayed by the reaction of the Horace Mann School, which indicated that for future assemblies would "conform to school values." Censorship? What place does censorship have in a school setting? This is akin to book banning and burning and is so six decades ago. Artists are meant to be thought-provoking, and the school assured the visiting poets that they were dealing with a group of students who could handle the subject matter being presented. That the students utilized the language of the visiting poets is not shocking, shouldn't be unexpected and should definitely not be censored.

Does it demonstrate an issue with the culture of the school, a lack of respect for certain groups of people? Probably. Does this mean that students should not be allowed to explore language and its power, for good or evil? Absolutely not. Censorship has no place in our schools. Censorship has no place in our country; our right to say what we believe, as opprobrious as it might be, is a fundamental right in America. Better to use this opportunity for growth and learning than to indicate that future invited artists and assemblies will be selected with pabulum in mind. Silencing people does not change their mind and has little effect on their conduct; exploring the roots of ideas and exposing and remediating ignorance is what helps us grow and become better people. It takes more time and requires more thoughtful work, but it is time well spent and work worth doing.

In the words of Charles Bradlaugh: Better a thousandfold abuse of free speech than denial of free speech.

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