I once wrote an essay on the ethics of teaching violent and sexually explicit literature to children. The essay was badly written and poorly conceived; possibly because it was written late at night, close to a deadline and with little enthusiasm. The last of these three reasons is surprising because it is a subject i am so unsure about it makes me passionate.
The reason this spins back into my fragile mind is that I remembered that twice this term students under the age of 13 have had copies of Fifty Shades of Grey confiscated from them.One student had stolen it from their parent and the other had borrowed it out of the library. Part of me is pleased that they were reading. Part of me baulks at pre-teens reading sexually explicit material and part of me is appaulled that what they want to read is writing of this literary quality (if you have not sampled the blissfull 'delights' of FSoG then don't. And I sincerely mean don't. If you want porn then browse the internet, it's of a far better quality and substantially more realistic.).
I have read it at some point, although I have difficulty remembering where (read: I have difficulty remembering anything (read: I have no idea what I am doing from moment to moment. (Read: please put me down.))) that the best thing that can happen to a song in the UK is for the BBC to refuse to play it. Is it wise to confiscate literature that we view as being too mature (North Sea of salt required here when discussing FSoG) for students? (token statement in parenthesis.) (breathe.)
Another example: A sixth form student came to me after one of a lecture series I host at my school delivered by staff and pupils on books that inspire them; this particular lecture was on Malcolm X's autobiography. A number of members of staff and a couple of students were discussing interesting books and the topic of Mein Kampf was raised. This sixth former said that her own copy of Mein Kampf had been confiscated as part of a wider school policy.I was appauled. The suppression of 'dangerous' liberal ideas forces interested readers to ingest them under their covers in bedrooms late at night and this avoids the ideas being discussed in a constructive and contemplative manner. Supressing ideas fetishises them. This is nye on a universal truth I feel but it, of course, ploblematic for the modern teacher who is so open to litigation/complaints/disciplinary action/Daily Mail led front page witch-hunt.
The subject of what stance to take is difficult. I would love to think that every student would be mature enough to look at every piece of literature in a constructive and emotionally distant way that enables them to view the flaws and merits with equal eyes, however I reluctantly believe, with a certain weightiness forming above my diaphragm, that this is not true. At the same time I think it is reasonably obvious from the above syntaxical nightmare that I am opposed to censorship. My firm belief is that students should never be patronised or talked down to and that at all times and that confiscating and stigmatising popular literature encourages students to read without context. Teachers should not be afraid to discuss reasons why literature that is seen as terrible, or offensive, or dangerous has redeemable features. Take for example our poorly written buddy Fifty Shades; A novel that has smashed sales expectations across the world. There must be a reason why the novel is so successful so therefore there is educational value in it from, at the very least, a sociological perspective. The themes of the novel must have picked up on a cultural zeitgeist in order to sell that many copies in a similar way to other literature that is both poorly written and hideously widely read; the example of Heart Of Darkness by Joseph Conrad springs to mind (a novel that was once described to me as having singlehandedly set back racial equality by fifty years; a slight hyperbole I feel but still).
There must have been a purpose to this over-punctuated rant and it is this: Nothing is ever beneath or beyond study. Everything has intrinsic value regardless of our own preconceptions. If you are to tell a student they are not allowed to read something you must first consider why they want to read it, and then consider why you do not want them to. Only at that point do I think that valuable judgements can be explored.