About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
First the vagina, now the scrotum
Susan Patron is a public librarian in Los Angeles, hardly the revolutionary stereotype, you'd think. She wrote a novel for children aged 9-12, “The Higher Power of Lucky,” which was lucky (or, actually, good) enough to win the prestigious Newbery award. As a result, a book that had an initial run of 10,000 copies got quickly reprinted to 100,000 in anticipation of the typical demand that schools and libraries put forth for winners of the Newbery.
But not so fast. Many of the same schools and libraries have banned, or are considering banning, The Higher Power because the main character, a 10-year old girl, comes across the unthinkable word at one point of the story. She says: “Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have a flu and cough too much, it sounded medical and secret, but also important.” Which makes sense within the context of the story, where our heroine is preparing to grow up, and in the process learning about body parts – as any healthy individual who is not blinded by stupid religious prudishness ought to do.
But Dana Nillson, a not uncommonly unenlightened teacher and librarian in Durango, Colorado, claims that “this book included what I call a Howard Stern-type shock treatment,” obviously having no idea what a Stern-type treatment is really about (perhaps Howard would be so kind as to give her a demonstration?). Another painful example of narrow mindedness is offered by Andrea Koch, an elementary school librarian in Brighton, New York, who – fearful of complaints from parents – said “I don't think our teachers, or myself, want to do that vocabulary lesson.” Really? So, what exactly are you and your teachers there for, other than babysitting?
As one might imagine, the controversy has broadened to the proper role of teachers and librarians and the criteria they use to chose what to teach and read to our kids. The question, of course, is not that no restrictions should be applied by educators to what our kids are exposed to. Education is about presenting the best of what's out there, and – more importantly – about giving students the tools to make up their mind about what is trash and what is worth reading. But a book that wins the Newbery is not trash, it is in fact part of the best of what's out there, and shielding children from talk about body parts is an irresponsible abnegation of our duties as adults.
In fact, here is a good example of an educational use of the word “scrotum,” this one probably not for children, borrowed from Jon Stewart. A bit more than a year ago Stewart ran a four-episode special of his Daily Show on the controversy surrounding so-called “Intelligent Design theory” (another bit of religious nonsense to which way too many of our children are in fact exposed by well meaning teachers and librarians). As part of the “Evolution, Schmevolution” series, Stewart convened a panel of experts, including William Dembski, a pseudo-intellectual proponent of ID. At one point Stewart turned to Dembski and said: “Let me ask you this: Intelligent Design, the scrotum, the most painful part of my body. This intelligent designer chose to put it in a bag that anyone can walk across and hit with a baseball bat.” To which the dumbfounded Dembski could simply mumble that “ID is not committed to every aspect of reality being the result of intelligence.” You ain't kidding, Bill.
But I'm sure the Daily Show is as controversial among puritans as vaginas and scrotums are. Which reminds me of the immortal words by H.L. Mencken: “Puritanism. The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Or educated.