"The curse word's in this book is not fit for kid's to read. If this is all the books you have, heaven help us.…I never let my kids hear these word's around my house. Why should they read them in your book's?…Your book is not fit to even talk about."
That is, of course, a letter to a teacher from an Irate Parent. Countless thousands of such are sent every year, and the schoolers are at a loss to answer them. The only right answer would require of them conscious and thoughtful devotion to Truth, but their principles, and their principals, do not permit Truth.
Although those few schoolers on whom it has actually dawned will never mention or admit it, there is, at the heart of government schooling, a great theme on which everything done there is a variation. It is simply this: almost everything that is done in the schools, everything from teaching children to tie their shoes to leading them—should such a possibility ever arise—into the powers of thoughtful self-knowledge, is intended either to make up for some deficit in their parents or, in many cases, to intervene between helpless children and parents who are just no damn good to them at all.
I approve that theme. And so too would any thoughtful and honest parent. Who is without deficits, both of character and knowledge? Who is, alone, capable of bringing his own children or others into the power of rational discrimination informed by the widest possible acquaintance with the measureless range of human experience? A thoughtful parent can be nothing but grateful to a teacher who, in some respect at least, truly knows better, and more.
There is, of course, a truthful answer to that Irate Parent. But, by the power of a deficit in him that might have been remedied by the schoolers he now castigates, but wasn't, he will take no betterment from the answer. It is too late—both for him and for his child. And, in any case, it is not an answer that a government agency can dare to give one of its patrons. Had he sought out and hired a teacher for his child, that teacher might well say: "Having chosen me for this work, you will either have to trust that I know better than you how to accomplish it, or go and find some other teacher for your child." But an agent of government cannot afford to commend the competition.
Thus it is that such Irate Parents must be answered with weaseling or silence or politic obsequiousness or, which is most customary, with pious slogans about "censorship." And thus it is, too, that when an Irate Parent makes a truly important point, it is neglected and lost. Faced with a page-by-page count of the words said to be "never used in this house," the schoolers can turn, even if they have to hire consultants to help them, to "literary" appreciations. But when a man asks, "Are these the only books you have?" they seem not to notice.
There are some questions that even a thoughtful and informed parent would ask: Must there really be four-color advertisements for pop stars on the music room wall? Do the children really have to relate to the Bushman experience? Do you really have to provide the sixth-graders with rap-sessions on abortion and displays of break dancing? And are these really the only books that you have?
We found that letter in an elegant journal called Aristos: The Journal of Esthetics. It stood as an epigraph to a piece called "The Misreading of Literature," by one Michelle Marder Kahmi. The book to which the letter referred is an autobiographical novel by Robert Newton Peck, A Day No Pigs Would Die. Kahmi begins with a careful and convincing defense of the book, which I have not read, and goes on in similar vein to a consideration of the currently notorious Catcher in the Rye. It was all familiar and expectable stuff, and directed, of course, to the great and certainly present danger posed by ignorant "would-be censors," who have indeed, as the author puts it, "demonstrated a failure in overall comprehension of the text."
Having myself failed in "overall comprehension" of more texts than I can count, I find her analysis reasonable and her commentary on those works that I do know useful and correct. I would therefore like to be more sympathetic to her work than I am, but she too, just like the schoolers, has neglected the important question in the letter. In her case, furthermore, the fault is the greater, for while little understanding should be expected of the schoolers, Kahmi stumbled over the truth, picked herself up, and went on.
Having disposed, I presume, of the "curse words" in Peck's book by commending "a prose style finely tuned to the spirit of the narrative," she goes on thus: "Moreover, A Day No Pigs Would Die is in every respect a highly moral story, celebrating time-honored American values: respect for moral order and productive work; family solidarity; individual courage, independence, and integrity."
I believe her, although I wonder how those time-honored values can be so particularly specified as "American." She has probably been infected by the typical obsequiousness of the schoolers, saying, in effect, to a hostile opponent, "Goodness gracious, don't you see that the values in this book are just what you, as a good American, would prize?" This is not a minor fault, for it shows that her intent is more polemic than esthetic.
Those virtues, however, are indeed virtues, and while their mere display or favorable mention is not enough to make a book a good book, their deprecation will, far more certainly than "curse words," make any book a bad book. I am convinced that Kahmi is right and Irate Parent wrong, that A Day No Pigs Would Die is not a bad book.
But is it really the only book they have, the only book that celebrates moral order and work, family and courage, independence and integrity? Are there, perhaps, other books, equally mindful of those time-honored virtues, that might have also the virtue of proving inoffensive, even if incomprehensible, to ignorant and illiterate parents who can make out little more than the four-letter words?
But it takes little imagination to guess what would happen in the junior high school now reading A Day No Pigs Would Die if someone were to suggest that it be replaced, for instance, with My Antonia, a novel to which, judging from what Kahmi says of it, Peck's book might well be related and which has the further merit, in these days, of having been written by a woman, Willa Cather.
It won't do. It is old. Not relevant. Insensitive, its author not withstanding, to the plights of women and other oppressed minorities. It is not written, in any case, at an appropriate reading level, and it is not to be expected that the children will, or even should, look up words or concentrate on figuring out the meaning of any passage that is not immediately clear. And whether it has them or not, the opposite qualities, perhaps much to the author's chagrin, will be claimed for A Day No Pigs Would Die. But in fact, the demerit in My Antonia is that it will not serve pour épater anyone.
It is not because it is a "highly moral story" that Peck's book is so often assigned to junior high school students in the government schools. Nor is anyone in the school business surprised when some Irate Parent objects to it. It is chosen so that some Yahoo out there will object to it, at which time its moral qualities will provide the high ground on which the schoolers will stand, defending themselves from the Yahoos they gave us in the last generation and wringing their hands about censorship.
For a government agency with an agenda for social management, it is not enough quietly to intervene between children and parents. It must also be seen to do so. Thus, every ignorant griper can provide new proof that we need government agencies with agendas for social management.
Richard Mitchell is the author, most recently, of Gift of Fire and is the publisher, editor, and associate circulation manager of The Underground Grammarian, from which this article is drawn.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Education: All the Books They Have".