The decision last week by Dade County, Ga., school officials to remove a novel from library shelves and from a required high school reading list because of parental complaints contradicts a basic principle of broad-based education. Books should be available to students subject only to parental oversight and to personal taste.
Anything more is censorship promoted by well-meaning but short-sighted adults who want to impose their own beliefs and mores on children other than their own.
"The Absolutely True Diary of a Part -Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie prompted "numerous" calls to school officials about the content of the novel. Those calls prompted Superintendent Shawn Tobin to remove the book from the schools' libraries and reading lists until its suitability could be reviewed by a media center committee. There's no need for such a committee.
Dade County students would be better served by a policy that would allow any book to be available to students whose parents have no objection to it, while simultaneously permitting parents who find the material objectionable to keep it out of their child's hands. That avoids wholesale censorship.
The book -- which tells about a misfit teenager coming of age on an Indian reservation during one year of high school -- does include controversial passages, but that's no reason to ban it. Most of the complaints about the book, Tobin said, were about profanity, or a depiction of Jesus Christ breaking wind. That matches a national pattern.
The American Library Association says the Alexie book was No. 2 on its 2010 list of most frequently challenged books. In addition to language, the ALA reports, complainants cited racism, sex education, sexually explicit material and violence as reasons for challenge. Such topics have prompted books challenges and bans before.
"Huckleberry Finn," "To Kill a Mockingbird" and the Harry Potter books often are targets. So, too, are books by Judy Blume, John Steinbeck, Maurice Sendak, Toni Morrison and Shel Silverstein. A California elementary school once banned dictionaries because of the manner in which some words were defined. What nonsense.
The idea that what is inside a book -- offensive language, sexual references, thematic material, violence, witchcraft, etc. -- should determine its availability to students is a direct challenge to freedom of choice and educational mission.
Discussion of sensitive or weighty topics in a school setting can promote intellectual growth and maturity. Banning a book, conversely, can deprive students of the opportunity to broaden their understanding of the world.
Official censorship of what students read for school -- with the exception of pornography, of course -- is best left to parents who have the responsibility to monitor their own children and to screen their reading choices as they see fit. Dade County's ban deprives many parents of the right to make those choices.