Academic Freedom 2, Censorship 0; On to the Second Round.


by Keith Yancy

One day after the second of two challenged books was successfully restored to the curriculum makes me feel like an underdog prize fighter who just won the first round of a boxing match.  It’s a good feeling, but one tempered by the knowledge that our opponent underestimated us, and is now realizing that this is going to take more strength and effort than they expected.  The bell will soon ring, and potentially many more rounds await.

But, as the Bible notes so eloquently, there’s a time for everything, and the time for feeling good about this victory is now. 

We took a few punches (several below the belt), but we landed more than we took.  What started as a small group of outraged parents quickly grew into a significant group of activists, well over 200 strong, who — without political backing or money — made their presence known and felt in the community.   The group that was created, Supporters of Academic Integrity in Plymouth-Canton, is as diverse as the thousands of kids who attend our schools: young and old, white and blue collar, liberal and conservative, people of all religions, colors and creeds.  A group united as citizens with a common cause — to preserve the academic integrity of our schools and school curricula, without the influence of political forces and agendas.  Notably, a group led by intelligent, motivated and talented people who have the courage of their convictions and the resolve to fight for them.

As the first round transpired, we learned from our opponent, who clearly knows their way around the boxing ring.  They had a Facebook page, so we created one.  They had several web sites, so we created one — a better one, in my opinion (http://supportacademicintegrity.com/).  They rallied supporters to board meetings, so we came too.  When they started leaning on politicians and writing local newspapers, we responded, then started taking the fight to them by writing our own.  When we noticed that they strategically placed themselves in view of the public access cameras at one meeting, the next meeting found our supporters sitting in many of those same seats.

But we also brought some fighting techniques that our opponents didn’t.  Better arguments, for sure.  We swatted away weak jabs like Lexile scoring, alarmist charges of pornography, and silly leaps of logic like connecting literature to inappropriate dancing and rumors of teenage sex in bathrooms.  While our supporters brought in political cronies, out-of-towners and even a local pastor to “defend our children,” we brought in parents, academic leaders (who knew that there WAS a process in place for reviewing literature), current students, and successful, articulate former students who actually read the books to defend our position.  In exchange after exchange, we landed shots while our opponents swung wildly, bobbing and weaving from point to point in search of a knockout punch that never came.

And, hopefully, we trained better before the fight.  It’s a lot easier to fight for books and academic freedom when you a) have read the books (!), b) have a student, former student, or future student in the class, c) respect and value the excellent teachers in our district, and d) value your rights as a parent enough to fight back.  For too long — much, much too long, I suspect — our opponents have assumed they were simply fighting another indifferent, uninspired “tomato can,” one whom they could knock out before their opponent could even come out of the corner or raise their gloves.  And yes, they even landed the first two or three punches in this fight, but we didn’t fall down, our knees didn’t buckle, and our will didn’t crumble.  We fought back.

Unfortunately, we even had to battle a “referee” — our local school board and our interim superintendent — who seemed stupefied by the fact that they actually had a fight on their hands this time.  When our opponent successfully convinced the interim superintendent to remove Waterland, he seemed stunned that we objected.  When they distributed hate literature against school policy at board meetings, the board seemed oblivious to their own policies, and shockingly indifferent to just how offensive the materials were (it took another incident of hate literature distribution before they finally took action).  They collectively broke the law by limiting public comment, and were compelled to issue a public apology and a “make up session” to address the error.  Our interim superintendent (and yes, I refuse to drop the “interim” from his title) displayed either profound naiveté or his true opinions when he allowed himself to be set up by a local conservative talk show pundit on the radio.  And when the ref finally woke up and started to do their jobs, it took almost two months before one of them — Barry Simescu — had enough courage to stand up publicly and support the teachers involved.  I can’t decide if that collective failure is pathetic or outright shameful.

Unfortunately, however, this fight doesn’t look like a one-rounder. 

Our opponent isn’t used to losing a round, much less actually trading punches with an opponent.  While they’ve made many claims over the past two months, the only one that I am willing to believe at face value is their claim that “they aren’t going away.”  I believe you.  And so does everyone else.

On a personal level, I’ve gained a few battle scars too.  I’m marked by a deep, abiding mistrust in local politics and politicians, many of whom have no crisis of conscience when obfuscating facts, spreading baseless accusations, or assuming the collective ignorance of the people they represent.  I’ve been bruised by the fact that I can no longer blithely assume that local decisions — whether they be about schools or anything else — are always done in the best interests of the majority of citizens.  And I’ve had my eyes opened by the fact that one politically minded parent can shamelessly relegate local high school kids, and an entire school district, to a bargaining chip in their quest for political power. 

I’ll be watching carefully in the rounds to come.  Watching to see if our interim superintendent will allow himself to be as easily manipulated in the future by the political forces that bray the loudest.  Watching to see if any actual evidence is EVER offered up to support the claims of sex in the bathrooms and hallways in our local high schools, and watching to see if our local state representative, Kurt Heise, will retract his statements made in a voter breakfast yesterday regarding these local “legends.”

I’ll also take stock of the effects of this first round have had on me, too.  I’ve been called many, many things in my life, but for the first time (and to my considerable amusement), I have been called a “bleeding heart liberal.”  After years — decades, actually — of masquerading as a milquetoast conservative, I’m suddenly finding myself on the other side of the always-moving line between liberalism and conservatism.  I will continue to support (and greatly admire) the leaders of the Supporters of Academic Integrity in Plymouth-Canton, whose generous gifts of time and talents have so greatly eclipsed my own.  And I’ve developed a renewed appreciation for those among us who enjoy policy and procedural debates ( a vital asset in such matters as these), for which I have neither the aptitude nor the patience. 

Round 1 is over.  But I’m sure there will be more rounds to come.  And the only way to ultimately win this fight is through perseverance, vigilance and watchfulness; as Calvin Coolidge once observed, “determination and perseverance alone are omnipotent.”  I don’t believe this fight will be won or lost by knockout, but with a rapidly growing group of motivated citizens, I love our chances.  In the meantime, be wary of those who would “protect” you from ideas, differences, or who defer to an idealized past.  Be skeptical of those who sell alternatives without full disclosure, without research, without results.  And be on guard for those who propose to “fight for you” without actually asking you for your approval to do so.

Bring on the next round, if you must.  We’re in it to win it.

Until next time… 🙂

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1 comment so far

  1. Carol Ostrowski on

    Congratulations on a well deserved victory for the students in the AP English program; this is a vote of confidence in their ability to read and evaluate the program materials in a mature and critical manner. I sincerely hope that the next set of parents wishing to shield their child from reading materials they find explicit or upsetting exercise their parental rights and prohibit him or her from taking the class instead of attempting to impose their own will on everyone in the program.


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