If we go along with the idea that books are good for you, then we have to take on board the notion that they might also be bad for you, too. You can’t logically have one without the other. Marshall Gregory describes how his students ask him, in horrified tones, whether his ideas about ethics and literature mean that he is in favour of censorship. And he says he isn’t, but then he asks his students whether ‘some sort of judgement or control’ should be exercised over the reading of young children, and the students agree without hesitation. His students persist, despite the inherent contradiction, in thinking ‘that they themselves are not vulnerable to ethical influence from stories, and second, that younger children are vulnerable.’ It’s intriguing that, isn’t it? And Gregory follows it up with a story about giving a picture book to his three-year-old daughter, which he and his wife discover at the last moment contains stories they don’t much like; for instance, one in which a black girl is depicted as a maid. In the end, they cut the stories out with a razor blade in a way that is invisible. As people used to say when I was a child: what you don’t know can’t hurt you.
The chapter goes on to talk about the ways we let stories in, the way we ‘give them assent’ in Gregory’s terms, by the willing suspension of disbelief, for instance, and that’s all good stuff, but I want to stick with the problem of censorship. Gregory’s students don’t want to be submitted to it, but they see the potential necessity for a young child. This is the classic structure of censorship – it’s a gesture of authority, from those in the know towards those who are not, and parents are inevitably put in this position. Although any parent will tell you that the debate about knowing is always hotly contested by the child itself, who will readily argue that s/he is quite old enough, quite mature enough, perfectly capable of forming a judgment, thank you very much. From wherever we stand in our lives, we can look at the inside of our own heads and see how much is in there that we know, how we have developed exponentially over the passage of time, how wise and able we feel ourselves to be. And it is impossible at the same time to envisage what it is that we don’t know, the experiences we haven’t had, the revelations to which the future may make us submit. I don’t think that age ever alters that position.
Instead, not knowing is something we readily attribute to others. It’s easy to imagine other people getting things wrong and making errors of judgment. It’s so easy to think of all the different kinds of information that could fall into the wrong hands, or be used in the wrong ways. I remember a while back there was a huge fuss when former President of Harvard, Larry Summers, was forced to resign when he endorsed the view that men performed better at maths and sciences than women due to a genetic advantage. Academics walked out of his lectures, there was uproar in the journals, and it became very clear that this sort of idea was unacceptable. I was talking about this to Mister Litlove.
‘I can’t quite feel that it’s right, ever, to prevent any kind of research from being aired in a university context, even if it’s distasteful,’ I told him.
‘Ah, but some ideas are very powerful,’ he replied. ‘Fundamental forms of religion, for instance. You might not want to have a good speaker converting your average obsessive student to the cause of Jihad.’
Well, that stumped me for a moment. I had to think really hard about it, and nearly pulled a muscle in my brain.
‘Do you know,’ I said, ‘I’m going to do something I haven’t done for at least a decade and invoke Kant.’
Mister Litlove agreed he hadn’t seen that coming.
‘One of Kant’s great premises was that we had to draw a distinction between questions of knowledge and questions of belief. We had to recognize that some things were always going to be beyond rational, objective proof, and that we could never honestly speak of them as a form of knowledge. Religion, evidently, falls into this category. And we have to keep that separate from questions of genetics, for instance, which we stand to one day know about and must therefore be discussed as we refine our knowledge. The problem is, we so long for the things we believe to be awarded the status of knowledge that we don’t distinguish adequately between the two.’
So where does this leave us on the question of censorship? Marshall Gregory talks, as I said, about stories and the assent we give to them. And he points out that only written stories offer us the possibility of reflective assent. We can pause while reading them, get our thoughts together, consider what we’re being told and whether we approve or not. Media stories, films, television, oral accounts ‘demand immediate assent’ and are therefore much harder to negotiate with in the space of our own minds. Belief is even a little further along the scale of assent, and a strange combination. Beliefs are fictions to which we have given complete, overwhelming assent, sometimes without even noticing it. But they are cordoned off from the other forms of concept, untouchable and unquestioned even though their status as reality is somewhat in doubt.
Now, stories, as I said in the last post, swallow the world whole – they are the only form to encompass the whole experience of life. And so your average story contains some fact, some fiction, some beliefs. What we really need is for people to understand the composite mix that goes into stories better, to understand that when they are written down, we have a chance to think about them in a way we don’t when they are told by preachers, or doctors or newsreaders. And to understand that some parts of a story are painful because they challenge dearly held beliefs that we may long to be true, but which are perpetually open to doubt. So parents and educators and all people in authority need to be careful about the way they tell stories, and the stories they choose to tell, but being careful means making sure that their student or child is allowed the luxury of reflection, of questioning its premises and of thinking about what is certain in the story and what is speculation.
Maxine Greene is an American philosopher of education, and her argument is that real freedom for students is ‘the capacity to choose and create themselves, to discover new ways of looking at things, to resist knowledge that is too easily given and received.’ Her guiding notion was that things could always be otherwise, and that education was about liberating students’ minds to think for themselves, to critique and to challenge. Censorship is about suppressing ideas we don’t like, yes, but usually it is stealthily about promoting one idea, one that is dominant and fashionable, like the belief (and it IS only a belief) that genetics will prove to be the one and only answer to the problem that is human development. Fundamental religion is a classic case of one story being promoted at the expense of all the others. We need a multiplicity of stories, and the courage to challenge beliefs, not simply hold them. If it had been my little three-year-old, I’d have given her the story about the black maid, and a story about a black child that grew up to be President, and perhaps a different and more ordinary story, too. Maybe that’s my inclination to build up everyone’s libraries, but I do subscribe to comparing multiple stories as the route towards good education, too.