I was more than a little frightened when I saw the survey, sponsored by the James L. Knight Foundation, which found that 35% of the high school students surveyed thought the “First Amendment goes to far in the rights it guarantees.” The study also found that three-quarters of the students think that flag burning is illegal and that “they don’t know how they feel about the First Amendment, or they take it for granted.” This sort of ignorance and apathy from the next generation makes me nervous. When I was in high school, freedom of expression was something my friends and I thought about a lot in the face of the administrations’ attempts to tighten the dress code and to censor the morning announcements which we produced. Perhaps the fact that we were in an arts high school made us an unrepresentative sample, but I think the difference is also attributable to the change in the political climate over the past half decade. Look at the PATRIOT Act. Look at these challenges to our civil liberties that are made in the name of protecting us from terror. Look at how the government has limited our access to information and to music and literary works for the sake of the corporations (particularly the publishing and entertainment industries). Is it any surprise that high schoolers who have grown up in this environment have such an ambivalent relationship with their own freedoms?
This contentious relationship with the Bill of Rights is not just apparent in high schools. Take for instance the Nippersink Library in Illinois, whose Board voted to remove the ALA guidelines regarding intellectual freedom from their policy manual. The library had dealt with a challenged movie, Happiness (a controversial film that portrays a pedophile without completely villainizing him) , by not allowing it to be taken out by children without parental permission. Because the ALA guidlines (I assume the Library Bill of Rights) was a part of their policy manual, they couldn’t get rid of the film altogether. So the Library Board voted to get rid of the ALA guidelines, stating that they’re too liberal. Apparently they’re not the only ones who feels that way, as evidenced in this editorial from the Northwest Herald in Illinois:
The association is an absolutist on intellectual freedom and First Amendment rights. It believes that they cover one and all, regardless of age or content. It is an extremist position that stirs controversy.
Extremist? Okay… Silly me to think that upholding the First Amendment was being patriotic. Now I see that I, and other librarians, are being extremist. Why bother having something so inconvenient in a library policy manual? Much better to just let a bunch of biased people decide what does or does not belong in the library. Much better to have the moral majority in control of collection development. I’d certainly love it if I could be the arbiter of what is worth having in the library and what is not, but I have a feeling that romance novel-reading patrons and those who don’t like reading subtitles would not be thrilled with my choices. That’s why we have a Library Bill of Rights in the first place — to ensure that there are library materials that represent everyone’s interests and tastes and that no one person or group of people can decide what is suitable.
The political climate in America has become so contentious and so nasty. Anyone who disagrees with the views of the moral majority is unpatriotic or doesn’t care about the welfare of children or is a communist. And anyone who disagrees with the liberals is an idiot or a bigot. There’s no intelligent debate, just name calling (and that goes for many “liberals” too). Even in Congress, it’s the left versus the right, and there are so few examples of true cooperation or bipartisanship anymore. We’re just so polarized, and that makes it more likely that the people in power (the conservatives) are going to do what’s good for them and not what’s good for the country.
I read an interesting article by Frank Rich in the New York Times, about how Clint Eastwood, a Republican, has been painted by the Right as a communist due to his recently released film, Million Dollar Baby. I won’t spoil the movie, but I’ll just say that it touches on a certain theme that the Christian Right is not fond of (though it also touches on several other themes that are a favorite of the Right). Eastwood defends his film and discusses how the political climate has changed in recent years:
“Maybe I’m getting to the age when I’m starting to be senile or nostalgic or both, but people are so angry now,” he adds. “You used to be able to disagree with people and still be friends. Now you hear these talk shows, and everyone who believes differently from you is a moron and an idiot – both on the right and the left.” His own politics defy neat categorization. He’s supported Democrats (including Gray Davis in the pre-Schwarzenegger era) as well as Republicans, professes the libertarian creed of “less government” and “was never a big enthusiast for going to Iraq but never spoke against it once the troops were there.” In other words, he’s in the same middle as most Americans. “I vote for what I like,” he says. “I’m not a loyalist to any party. I’m only a loyalist to the country.” That’s no longer good enough, apparently, for those who feel an election victory has empowered them to enforce a strict doctrine of political and spiritual correctness.
Eastwood is one of the last few free-thinkers in this country — a man who votes with his conscience rather than based on the party affiliation of the candidate. During the whole presidential election insanity, I got a lot of calls from various liberal groups asking me to go door-to-door for Kerry. Their whole argument was that they wanted to get Bush out of the White House. They said nothing about Kerry being great or being the best guy for the job. I wasn’t willing to go door-to-door to tell people to vote against one candidate by voting for the other. Is that supposed to inspire anyone? It’s that kind of narrow-mindedness on both sides — this red state/blue state mentality — that is tearing our country apart.
I wish I had some words of wisdom about all this. I know I’ve kind of gone off on a tangent, but I think all of this is connected in some way to how our nation and our political system is changing. And I really don’t know what we can do about it. I wish that people would take a lesson from Eastwood and be true to your values, not to a party. Keep an open mind. Respect what the other side has to say and try to work with them, not against them. Remember that this country was built upon the freedoms protected by the Bill of Rights, and that they should be upheld in all spheres of American life. The government is supposed to be the voice for the entire population, not just those in the red states. And the library is supposed to represent all of the community, not just its most vocal members.
Ok… I’ll get off my soap box now. 😉
Well, I’ll give my two cents. Regarding the anemic support given to the First Amendment by high schoolers, that doesn’t shock me at all. Over the last decade or so, as schools have had to deal with rising student populations and decreasing budgets, they have become far more authoritarian in their outlook. I have two younger siblings still in public school, and their descriptions of school life make it sound like a prison. Obviously they exaggerate, but it does seem like schools treat their students as second-class citizens. They are not given the right to privacy, or free speech, or any other constitutional rights. They are not allowed to freely express themselves, either verbally or through their appearances. This is done in the name of security, of course, but such treatment does not lead to adults who know how to function in a democratic society. What’s more, due to so much political pressure from groups on both the left and the right, schools have sought to avoid any material that could possibly be considered as controversial, to the point where schools no longer encourage imagination or creative thinking. Instead, with the prevalence of standardized curriculums, schools encourage their students to simply follow directions and regurgitate material for tests. Such a mindset does not lead students to become actively engaged citizens. If we demand that our children suppress their individuality and original thinking, we can hardly be surprised when they become apathetic about democracy in adulthood.
It doesn’t help that the larger society does nothing to encourage anyone to become involved in the political process. The airwaves are dominated by commercial messages that seek to turn us all into passive consumers of products, ignoring our democratic responsibilities. So now we have a society where the vast majority people know little or nothing about politics, and care less. In this environment, it is no wonder that we have become so polarized in our views, as there are not enough moderate, open-minded people left in the debate. Only committed people on the extremes are left, and the worldviews have become so different that it is becoming impossible to have a reasonable debate on any given issue. How can you debate a particular issue when the two sides have fundamental disagreements over the role of government, or the role of religion? And like I said above, I think our education system plays into this. Too many of us are not trained to consider multiple sides of an issue, to weigh the logic of a given issue before reaching a decision. Instead, those of us in politics simply accept one side or the other, and reject anything that conflicts with our philosophy.
There are no easy answers to this problem, though I’m sure some politician would think otherwise. My own opinion is that we must first reform our education system, to encourage our children to think on their own, and to be open-minded, and not afraid of their own imagination and ideas. It is, of course, much easier to simply rely on a standardized test to measure students. Much easier than recognizing that intelligence, like personality, is highly individualistic, with no two people thinking in exactly the same manner. But if someone is raised to follow instructions, and to never offer an original thought or idea, I think it is impossible to break that mindset once that person reaches adulthood.
We also need to re-introduce the idea of citizenship. Too many people feel detached from our political system, whether through powerlessness or apathy. It doesn’t help when the President tells us al that the best thing we can do in the wake of a tragedy like 9/11 is to shop. But frankly, I’m tired of being told that I am only a consumer, and hence my only power is to refrain from buying a company’s product. I think we can all do more than that. But I’ve ranted long enough. Sorry about that. 🙂
Wow, Brian! You really do need your own blog! I totally agree with you about the changes in our schools. Schools are so locked down now — there is no way I (and my friends) could have done half of what we did in high school today. Most of the schools I worked in when I was a therapist required uniforms or had extremely strict dress codes. You couldn’t bring Advil to school without being suspended. I understand having a “zero tolerance” policy for weapons or violence, but there is also a zero tolerance policy for individuality and expression. I just think that’s ridiculous! You’re also right that schools teach kids to memorize things, not to question things, because questioning authority is not a convenient quality for the teachers to deal with. Much easier to teach kids to blithly accept everything they’re taught. Not every school is run this way, but the schools I encountered in Florida just seemed to be going through the motions in terms of education. It’s depressing to see.
So when are you getting your own blog??? 🙂