A rash of complaints, mostly about sexual content in the Des Moines area’s public school library books, was the cause, for most observers, of some shaking of the head, but not much else.
Districts tend to have good processes to fix these things. And “How young is too young?” is a reasonable question, although those who ask seem to have a very weak view of the maturity of teenagers and younger children.
Things have quickly gotten worse, most acutely with Iowa Senate President Jake Chapman’s threat to imprison librarians and other educators who make books available that he finds offensive.
We differ fundamentally with Chapman on almost every aspect of this:
- When we lack evidence to the contrary, we trust that educators have the well-being of children first in mind and will resolve close calls in favor of freedom of expression. Chapman regards them as enemies of the people who either negligently or maliciously poison young minds.
- We see in the excerpts read and shown at public meetings, honest discussions and, yes, depictions of sexual acts and sexual abuse. They are part of award-winning longer stories that are relevant to young people’s experiences. Chapman sees works that appeal “to the prurient interest,” according to state law already in the books, which he says school staff may be violating.
- We recognize that these books were purchased because children with insecure support at home or elsewhere need affirmative and honest literature, and they need it – in Chapman’s words – “in the safest environment they should be in: public schools. ” Chapman seems to only see drawings that “cannot be shown on the 5 News.”
Even if a problem was evident with school review processes – and to be unmistakably clear, it is not – revisions of a law on criminal obscenity would be a wildly disproportionate response, as commentators have already pointed out. It would be far more likely to deprive students of any remotely challenging literature and good teachers than to “protect” them in any real way.
Public libraries serve everyone; book bans earn few
Parents have told administrators and board members that children can be cared for for abuse by viewing graphic depictions of sex, and that some curricula are in conflict with beliefs taught at home. Educators are able to fairly assess such concerns and all the evidence underlying them.
Registry reporters and the Iowa Starting Line news site have published thorough explanations of the books’ history and messages. In most cases, the challenged books are available at high school libraries. The involvement of a book in assigned readings for a class raises various questions, as does its presence in a middle or elementary school. Schools can already skillfully handle these distinctions as well.
Many of the excerpts that people have highlighted are about same-sex relationships. Perhaps the sex scenes on Chapman’s police observation list will include works by Judy Blume, James Joyce, longtime Iowan Jane Smiley, and many, many others. At least, as we wrote three years ago when protesters rioted over LGBTQ materials in Orange City’s public library: “We should all be able to agree on an agenda for intellectual freedom and fair service and access. Public libraries must serve everyone: Black and white, rich and poor, religious and atheist. And yes, gay and straight. “
‘1619 Project’ author: Give children the path to an open mind
It was a sign of our divided times Monday night that when journalist and author Nikole Hannah-Jones spoke at a benefit dinner in Des Moines about libraries as pillars of free access to ideas and opportunities, Iowans discussed at two subway school board meetings removing books from school libraries and limiting the curriculum to reflect an “honest, patriotic education”.
Waterloo-based Hannah-Jones, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius grant” scholarship, was here to receive the 2021 Iowa Author Award from the Des Moines Public Library Foundation.
Hannah-Jones ran New York Times Magazine’s “The 1619 Project,” the title of which refers to the introduction of slavery in America. It is a collection of essays, photographs, poems and other works that examine how slavery continues to shape our nation. She has also published a new book, “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story”, and an accompanying children’s book.
Hannah-Jones credits the Waterloo Public Library for opening up a world of reading, learning, and opportunities to her that she could not have imagined as a child of working-class parents. Her curiosity, voracious reading, and increasingly challenging texts introduced to her in high school by Black Studies teacher Ray Dial led her to question why black history was absent for the rest of the curriculum.
She is proud of her Iowa roots. The ideas she began exploring here have driven a lifelong journey of questions, exploration and learning. She expressed dismay that in her home state, a bill was introduced in the Legislative Assembly last session to reduce funding for any school district that used “The 1619 Project” in its curriculum. That bill was not passed, but another did so that prohibits the teaching of certain concepts related to race and gender.
Her message to school board members among the audience was pointed out: If the protection of freedom of expression of the first amendment is to matter, no state entity should ban books or ban the teaching of ideas just because someone dislikes them. Do not deny Iowa children the path to an open mind.
It was actually refreshing to hear several speakers do this during a public comment period at Monday’s Urbandale School Board meeting. (Note also: The board gave 12 speakers five minutes each to speak; Des Moines City Council should give it a try.)
However, the seriousness of the freedom of speech issue should not overshadow Chapman’s willingness to smear educators and others with a different view of things: “Nor should any decent person think this is okay,” he said Monday.
It is time to stop the intimidation and demonization of teachers. It’s time for Iowans, who have always valued their public schools, to rally behind teachers and school districts.