July’s People and Intellectual Freedom

In South Africa, dancing naked in the rain, exposed to the explosive freedom of natural existence, liberated from the cold tethers of suburban sterility, Maureen Smales begins to reflect on intellectual superficiality. In a small hut, during the interregnum between the destruction of the apartheid government and the birth of a new order of thought, Maureen learns to reject narrow-minded assumptions and to question archaic senses of sin. She learns to embrace human diversity. July’s People, by Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, teaches us to look critically at our belief systems and our world. White, liberal, and affluent, we’re all a little like Maureen Smales. We’re all a little trapped in this quaint suburbia, sheltered from human suffering.

However, it’s exposure to literature—to other worlds and other people and other ideas—that frees us from the repressive homogeneity of everyday existence. A diverse literature base functions as one of the most potent safeguards against stereotype and narrow-mindedness; and ignorance functions as the strongest bulwark of prejudice.

Indeed, one of the most important goals of education—of John Jay High School—is to teach students to analytically approach a diverse array of facts and opinions, to weigh pieces of evidence, and to make educated conclusions. Any person who wishes to stifle this diversity of thought—in the name of personal values or community standards—is promoting a certain breed of bigotry and simplemindedness, and I refuse to be silent.

As many know, a single-man campaign is being waged against the school to censor the book July’s People from the tenth grade required-reading curriculum. The book, according to a February 2nd letter to the editors of The Lewisboro Ledger by the man at the forefront of the campaign, “contains graphic descriptions of female genitalia and sexual intercourse,” as well as, “profanity of the type that is not acceptable in any other organization.” He cited the book’s study guide as evidence. He misspelled the author’s name.

By definition, parental concern crosses the nebulous line towards “censorship” when it seeks to restrict not just one child from reading a book, but an entire grade. This precisely what the man is aiming to achieve. Questioning a book is fine, but seeking to ban it is censorship—plain and simple.

Censorship, like a poisonous gas released in open air, threatens to stifle and destroy based on the direction of the wind. We should not restrict the intellectual freedom of John Jay High School students based on the social winds of contemporary times. We should not limit the freedom of information in this school based on the moral decisions of a few. What is at stake, my fellow students and teachers, is nothing less than human prosperity: the magnificent diversity of opinions, ideas, and thought so essential to the betterment of mankind cannot flourish in the cold conformity sought by a repressive few.

Liberal freedom of thought is paradoxical. Indeed, at first glance, we find that the philosophy behind censoring July’s People might make sense. Consider this: a free society functions by allowing individuals to make choices concerning what media they’re exposed to. Essentially, freedom of choice supersedes any conception of right and wrong: I may not support homosexuality, but I support one’s right to make a personal decision; I may not support euthanasia, or Howard Stern, or even Playboy, but I support one’s right to choose. Without the ability to make choices, we can no longer consider ourselves free, right? So, in a way, I ask myself, Why should a community’s value system be imposed on this man’s son? If this were a racist administration pushing a racist book, don’t we have the right to exempt ourselves from reading it? Who are we to judge the validity of one concern over another concern?

Though attractive, these arguments are fundamentally misguided: in the schoolyard freedom has a different face. Educators in our school system are endowed with the unique responsibility of determining what is valuable and what is trash; what is good and what is bad. Sure, in the public world everyone gets to choose his or her own path in life, and everyone gets to change the channel, put down the book, or turn off the radio. However, it’s in the educational world that we equip ourselves with the intellectual resources to makes these choices. So, it’s in the educational world—by its inherent didactic nature—that we must trust those above us to make educated and prudent decision concerning the media we’re exposed to. The school system is a training ground for the development of opinions and insights, not a microcosm of modern society where everyone has the ultimate freedom of choice.

In fact, in the 1973 Supreme Court case of Miller v. California, it was found that no material containing, “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value,” can be banned from the public sector or the school systems. Likewise, John Jay’s humanities department selection criteria states clearly that, “the fact of sexual incidents or profanity appearing in a book or passage will not, of itself, disqualify a book from selection.” Simply put, any censorship under the guise of enforcing “community standards” demands a higher burden of moral consideration than simply do I agree with the material being taught? Instead, educational value must play an integral role in the decision of literature inclusion.

In The Ledger, the man writes, “[I] placed my trust in the administration of our school to protect my child.” It’s true that our High School must consider freedom of speech based on the social utility that it provides.

It must be made explicitly clear, however, that July’s People—considering its author’s Nobel Prize, its towering themes of social justice, and its beautiful glimpses into the human spirit—is a literary masterpiece, and provides an important social utility to the school and to the community. July’s People, reviewed by the New York Times as, “so flawlessly written that every one of its events seems chillingly, ominously possible,” is not pornography and is not filth, it’s a work of art.

Though sexual undertones make important commentaries within the book, in no way is sex a central aspect of the text. “I hope that as our teachers access worthy texts with their students,” writes Mr. Cass, director of John Jay’s humanity department, “they will help to distinguish the gratuitous from that which enlarges a view of relationships, the prurient from the honestly human, the sleazy from the artistic. In a small way, July’s People allows us to do that.”

As a community must stand by the unequivocal declaration that there is nothing bad about sex, and that debasing sexual knowledge as wicked and sinful is a morbid and intellectually repressive practice. We must acknowledge that official ignorance of sexual matters, when coupled with the inevitable knowledge disseminated in locker rooms and weekend parties teaches children to be deceitful and hypocritical to their elders. We must assert that virtue based on deception is not virtue at all, and that knowledge based on delicate filtration is not knowledge at all.

It’s true that democracy of action is the surest form of government; however, democracy of thought is dangerous, for the suppression of legitimate intellectualism demands more than a mere preponderance of opinion. Tyranny of the majority must not threaten the diversity of our school system.

It’s the liberal view of knowledge dissemination that all things, in varying degrees, are questionable; and it’s the strictly illiberal conviction that certain facts must not ever be subject to the critical hands of human reason. With that it mind, we must have faith that dissent will only elucidate the truth. That discussion rather than legislative force must determine the content of our school’s curriculum, and that open lines of communication concerning what is appropriate and what isn’t are fundamentally important to the health of our school district and indeed our democracy at large. And as students we must not be short-changed, infantilized, and isolated from this important dialogue concerning our academic freedom. We must not let the poison gas of censorship and moral agenda be released to obscure our vision and sedate our quest for knowledge. We must not censor July’s People from our school’s reading curriculum.



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