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Reality, Rights, and R-Rated Movies

The Douglas County school board recently voted to ban showing R-rated films in Douglas County classrooms. The fact that a school board would find it necessary to make such a rule, and the reactions to it, vividly illustrate the pathetic state of the public debate on education.

Newspaper accounts were full of criticism. The how dare you tell teachers what to teach crowd wrapped itself in the First Amendment and rose in hot defense of teacher professionalism. In a January 7th column, Rocky Mountain News columnist Bill Johnson wrote that banning films is an insult to teachers because it strips them of the authority to best determine what belongs in their classrooms. It stems from little other than narrow-minded fear…Johnny might glimpse a breast…And report it to Mom and Dad who might raise a stink. For more frightening First Amendment issues, he quotes English teacher Fran Henry. My fear is once you start down this slippery slope, can we guarantee that printed material [isn#39;t next]

What#39;s frightening is their understanding. The First Amendment says that Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech. Though the government cannot make laws censoring speech, the government including the Douglas County school board, and public libraries, can often choose what kind of speech to promote. In fact, choose they must. A public library with limited funds cannot possibly buy all published books. Deciding that a book on Madonna has less value to patrons than a book on roses is an exercise in judgment, not censorship.

Since children spend limited time in school and human knowledge is vast, school boards must choose what to teach. Good schools have detailed curricula. They specify the subjects that will be taught in each class, the order in which they will be taught, how they will be taught, and the time that will be devoted to each. This minimizes repetition from grade to grade, ensures that important subjects receive adequate attention, and provides for an orderly progression through the school years.

A school with a flabby curriculum characterized by windy goals, poor teacher choice, and deficient detail is the sort in which elementary school children end up reading The Wind in the Willows three times in three different grades and never do learn their multiplication tables. Telling teachers what to teach, and how they will do it, is a sign of professionalism, not an insult to it.

Only the how dare you insulate children from the real world group surpasses the don#39;t tell us what to do group in foolishness. Like Mr. Johnson, these people generally ascribe opposition to their favorite instructional materials, whether R-rated movies, units on death education, or rain forest math, as narrow-minded fear. Heedless ofnbsp; the difference between an Oliver Stone movie and history, they present themselves as champions of broadminded openness. English teacher Liz Alley opined that Living in a bubble is not godly, it#39;s dangerous.

K. C. King, identified as a teacher and historian, said most of history would receive an R rating. This neither justifies the use of scarce instructional time to watch movies nor explains how so many history books manage to instruct without descending into vulgarity.

School officials who say things like this often seem to find scholarship less important than a school#39;s success in socializing children. The socialization minded administration may be unable to distinguish lemon drops from heroin and switchblades from apple peelers, but they would do well to remember that in real world workplaces, foul language, extreme behavior, nudity, and sexual innuendo are both actionable offenses and plain bad manners. Since school is a child#39;s workplace, reality demands decorum. Parents rightly raise stinks when schools harass children with material that would get private employers sued.

Although the critics have lots to say about reality and rights, their academic arguments are embarrassingly weak. Mr. Johnson claims that movies transform dry textbook matter into real life. This may prod a kid to pick up a book and learn more. Now Hollywood has an unparalleled reputation for historical imbalance and inaccuracy. In the movies, drama trumps fact, and emotion looms larger than reason. Neither drama nor emotion are important scholarly tools. Do the kid a favor. Skip the movie, and read a good book. With a little practice he won#39;t find it so dry. He might even learn something about what really happened.

Linda Gorman is a Senior Fellow at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank located in Golden, Colorado. https://i2i.org.

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Copyright 2000