What I Learned About “Common Sense” at the Local School Board Meeting
by Keith Yancy
NOTE: I’ve had a surprising number of people ask me for an update on the book ban efforts in my daughter’s local high school. One book (Beloved) has been re-instated, the other (Waterland) is “in review.” In the interim, there have been a lot of school board meetings, editorials, radio interviews, etc. Here’s my most recent observations.
After spending the first 44 years of my life having never attended a local school board meeting, I’ve now attended two. And let me tell you something – they’re more interesting than you might expect. At least, they are in my town.
Well, if you’ve read any of my blogs lately, you know about the whole “book ban issue” (as some call it) vs. the “process and parental rights issue” (as others call it). I’ve learned quite a bit at these two meetings, especially the last one, which was held solely to hear citizen complaints about the whole affair. After I attended this latest meeting, I intentionally didn’t want to write about it until I had let a day or two pass, to make sure I was writing with reason and logic, rather than emotion and anger.
Well, that time is up. Over the past few days, a few observations gradually came into focus.
- I was generally impressed with the civility and behavior of everyone in attendance. The air was definitely charged, as people with very, very different (and strong) opinions were together in a very small room. But, other than one man acting like a seventh-grader whispering and snickering nearby, people generally behaved themselves. That was good to see.
- Both sides had some very good speakers, and both sides argued persuasively. There was a balance between the “pro-book” and “anti-book” people, and typically, the order of those who spoke alternated between the two points of view. And – lest you mistake me for an ideologue – I was impressed with several speakers from each side. Consider:
- An elderly gentleman (and a veteran) who was articulate and concerned about the decline in morality found in today’s schools, and his belief that these books play a role in that decline.
- Numerous students and former students, who argued with intelligence and eloquence about the positive impact these literary works had in their lives and education.
- A pastor of a local church, who expressed his concern about the books’ content in the hands of 16-17 year olds.
- A former head of the English department at the high school, who confirmed not only that there WAS a process in place for vetting these books, but that the teachers were highly qualified to teach them.
- The son of a local political “insider,” who – after his mother made a complete fool of herself reading “naughty passages” from the books in a previous board meeting – spoke with civility, and offered an appeal for everyone to find common ground. Ironically, the son seemed far more mature and authentic than his mother, and showed some courage addressing the audience.
- Finally, and – in my opinion, the most powerful speaker of all – a young African-American woman, who explained just how powerful and important Beloved was to her and her understanding of slavery. Everyone, on both sides, was absolutely silent as she spoke, and she showed as much grace, conviction, and quiet strength as I have ever personally witnessed. I am not easily moved… but I was after she spoke.
- Most disturbingly, what I learned is that I’ve apparently never understood what “common sense” meant. The phrase was used by the same parent who began this entire affair, whom I won’t name here, as he addressed the board. It struck me that he so consciously said it, with emphasis, to describe his actions. His obvious and repeated use of this phrase stuck in my mind, and I found myself reflecting on what “common sense” means to him.
So, I decided to review the organization and web site he’s affiliated with, www.pccscommonsense.com, to better understand “common sense.” Below is an “infographic” I created, using this website’s EXACT words as they were presented on 1/31/2012, as well as a few corrections:
- After hearing this person use the term “common sense” at the meeting, and reviewing the web site he claims to be affiliated with, I can only conclude that I’ve misunderstood what the term means. Apparently, according to this web site and the “group” responsible for it, “common sense” means the following:
- That, rather than being accountable for your decisions, it’s okay to make a choice, provide consent, then change your mind – and then demand that everyone else do the same.
- That providing notice of “mature content,” in writing, well in advance of the class starting, isn’t really “full disclosure.”
- That it’s okay to claim that there are no “options,” when there were alternative texts provided and alternative classes available.
- That, by reading only a few sexually oriented lines from 250+ page book, you can accurately judge the entire book’s literary value… and take it away from 94 other students without their input or consent.
- That it’s perfectly acceptable to replace one banned book with another book that’s been on many “book ban” lists for years.
- That you can try to convince people that using Lexile scores to judge literary works is somehow more logical than judging great architecture by the weight of the building.
- That, when your Lexile scoring argument fails, you can simply “bully your way to success” by rallying a local political party to try to convince others when your “arguments” failed to do so.
- That you can break school policy and rules by distributing propaganda on school property while, at the same time, demanding that everyone “follow the rules.”
- That reading an entire work of literature, in a college-prep classroom environment, with a professional educator, is no different from shouting a few “dirty” sentences, out of context, from that same book, on television — where any young child could hear it. AND justifying doing so by claiming that it’s all due to your ”concern for children.”
- That it’s perfectly fine to circumvent “process” and ignore the rights of other parents all while re-naming your attempt to ban books as a “process and parents’ rights issue.”
- That it’s okay to make vague, unsubstantiated claims of “dirty dancing” and “sex in the bathrooms” without having to prove of any of them.
- That, despite any causal evidence, it’s okay to link literary works with “dirty dancing.”
- That, when people don’t agree with your point of view, it’s alright to assume they just “aren’t aware.”
- That disrupting a class for AP Literature students is somehow “protecting” them, despite doing so without the permission or approval of other parents involved.
- That it’s more dangerous to read two paragraphs about sexual exploration than it is to watch the graphic violence and hear the profanity in a movie like Saving Private Ryan (which is shown in another high school class).
- That there’s no inconsistency in demanding an open, public process while privately submitting a — yes, here it is — “common sense solution” to the school board.
- That the desire to remove books from the curriculum will begin and end with just two books, or just sexually oriented material, or just a literature class.
- And, the most disturbing definition of all… that it’s entirely acceptable to define and decide for other people in this country what their moral standards should be.
I could go on, but I’m exhausted just thinking about all the new local meanings of “common sense” floating around town these days. What’s clear, throughout this whole silly affair, is that the real values of this “Common Sense” organization can be summarized very simply: Feel completely comfortable defining and determining “morality” for other people, whether they ask you to do so or not. Call in local political groups when you can’t produce a compelling or lucid argument. And use a meaningless, feel-good term such as “common sense” as a repetitive, empty slogan to mask a larger agenda.
At home, after the school board meeting concluded, my high-school daughter brought me a permission slip from her school to sign. I looked it over, reviewed the contents, asked a few questions (it was for an economics class), and prepared to sign my name. At that exact moment, it struck me… would my signature – my consent – be respected in this class? Or would my daughter’s education be again disrupted by local political forces that use our school system as a platform for public exposure? Would my rights, and the rights of my daughter, be equal to others this time? Or would they be tossed aside like last semester, held hostage by people who feel qualified to tell me what’s “acceptable” for my own child?
I would write the school board again, but since they never bothered to even acknowledge my previous letter, I’ve become skeptical that anyone’s really listening. I hope that, if these political games actually succeed, the school board — and everyone else at the schools – like and accept all the “common sense” choices and selections that will be made for them in the future. Because if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s this: they won’t stop with just two books.
Until next time…