Monday, August 04, 2003


"And if all the others accepted the lie which the party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. 'Who controls the past' ran the party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'"

- George Orwell

I was once told by my daughter’s teacher that she wasn’t so sure I should let her read Jonathan Swift’s satiric masterpiece, “A Modest Proposal.” Her argument was that the subject matter was too "dark" and that it might be disturbing to young children. Apparently, this teacher had never watched prime time television or wandered past a video arcade where many of her delicate charges spent their time.

Katie was ten at the time. She had recently danced with her Irish dance school at the unveiling of a commemorative plaque honoring the victims of the Irish Famine or An Gorta Mor – The Great Hunger. Between the various performances of musicians, dancers and poets, speeches were given, accounts and letters read of the harrowing event that nearly brought the Irish people and their culture to the brink of extinction and changed the course of our two countries' histories forever. What better time to introduce a descendent of the survivors of that cataclysmic period of history to a great work of literature that foresaw the tragedy and argued forcibly for that people’s humanity?

Little did I know I was encountering what has become the norm in our schools – the dumbing down of America. I had of course encountered censorship in its older more familiar form, usually launched by those fundamentalist sentries of morality on the fringes of the Christian right – where Beatles records were burned because John Lennon had declared they were 'more popular than Jesus' or “Catcher in the Rye” couldn’t be taught in schools since its protagonist persisted in taking the lord ‘s name in vain.

Of course, in other parts of the world in different times there were the book burnings of Hitler's Third Reich and Stalin’s purges of heretical writers and poets in the Soviet Union. My personal experience of having lived in Northern Ireland where under the “Offences Against the State Act” a person in possession of “seditious materials” could land in an internment camp for six months. But, this is America, where we have the First Amendment and the Enlightenment ideal of the free exchange of ideas.

Things have changed. In what appears as a time of unbridled license – unlimited access to pornography, celebrities tweaking the noses of censors on the airwaves – something else has been going on, something more pernicious than the knock on the door in the middle of the night.

"All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and re-inscribed exactly as often as was necessary."

I've recently read Diane Ravitch's new book, "The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn." Although the term "Orwellian" has virtually become a cliché, I can think of no other word to describe what Ms. Ravitch details.


Post a Comment

<< Home