by Noah Berlatsky
The job of American schools, as enforced by the bureaucracy, isn’t really education. It’s censorship.
A colleague of mine working on a world history course was told to omit the fact that gay people were targeted during the Holocaust. I was told that I could not, for sensitivity reasons, include a test passage about storms at sea. Ditto on passages about rats, alcohol, love, and death, as well as those that depicted, or even mentioned, slavery—and this was for an American history exam.
So I wasn’t surprised to learn that the Chicago Public Schools have recently restricted access to Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir, Persepolis, which deals with her experiences growing up under the fundamentalist regime in Iran. The exact reason for the ban is still somewhat unclear.
School officials claim that they don’t actually object to the political content. Instead, they say, the book is still sanctioned for school libraries, but not lower grades because of “graphic language and images that are not appropriate for general use in the seventh grade curriculum.” High school teachers can still use the book, though only with special training.
To be fair, Persepolis does include a certain amount of violence and (especially in its second volume) some sex. Satrapi talks about the torture of friends and relatives, both by the Shah and by the Revolutionary government. She also talks about the Iran-Iraq war, and there are pictures of wounded soldiers. She describes her escape from Iran to Austria, and talks (without much detail, but still) about her sexual adventures as a young woman living on her own. She describes her suicide attempt. She uses the word “fuck.” She talks about her gay roommates. She shows herself as a young child having imagined conversations with God and as an adolescent smoking cigarettes and dealing pot. In my experience, any one of these infractions would be sufficient excuse to keep Persepolis out of students’ hands.
I’m sure there are some parents who don’t want their seventh graders exposed to narratives about suicide, torture, God, or sex, and don’t want them to read the word “fuck.” There are probably parents who would be horrified to learn that my third-grader is reading Louise Erdrich’s The Birchbark House at his school—a book in which virtually everyone dies in a hideous smallpox epidemic.
The truth is, outside of arithmetic, it’s hard to teach anything worth learning that someone won’t find offensive or upsetting or frightening or off-putting. If it’s interesting, if it’s something people care about, then people are going to have opinions about it. That means somebody, somewhere, isn’t going to like it. The drive to keep our children perfectly safe from dangerous knowledge just ends up reducing their education to a bland, boring, irrelevant slog.
So do we want to micromanage our schools for ideological purity? Or do we want kids to learn something—even, sometimes, something with which we might disagree? If we want the first, we should keep the status quo. If we want the second, we need to stop worrying that teachers might teach the wrong thing so that we don’t let them teach anything at all.
Obviously, nobody wants first graders watching slasher films. But Persepolis isn’t a slasher film. It’s aimed in part at kids. Satrapi shows herself, as a child and then as a young woman, dealing with violence, with sexuality—with moving away from her parents, and failing, and trying again. Hopefully, most of the students who read it won’t be faced with the level of trauma and danger that she faced—though some of them in Chicago may well. But even if their exact experiences don’t map onto hers, surely a lot of kids in middle school or high school will see themselves in the narrative here.
The worry, then, seems to be not so much that the material will be too much for them (like horror films in first grade), but that students might feel like the story resonates with them. Perhaps they might even see, in the senseless, narrow-minded institutions of Iran, an analogy to narrow-minded institutions closer to home.
This is a condensed version of an article that originally appeared on TheAtlantic.com