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School Libraries and Kids' Books That Seem To Put Communist Cuba in a Positive Light:

South of the Suwannee writes [UPDATE: I originally credited this to University of Miami lawprof Michael Froomkin, but i was mistaken; Michael was just the person who pointed me to this post]:

Embargo of the Mind

"The book has content and pictures that are reflective of the current Communist regime. Staff is following approved School Board rules to remove the book from all libraries."

Miami-Dade Schools Supertendent Rudy Crews, in a memo regardng a book on Cuba.

The publication Vamos a Cuba/A Visit to Cuba is part of a series described by Publishers Weekly:

Grade 2-4-These informative and colorful books can be placed either in a reference collection or in a circulating collection. The title pages feature a world map with the respective country highlighted, and a table of contents outlines the broad subject categories covered (e.g., points of interest, homes, food, clothing, work, transportation, language, education, entertainment, celebrations, and the arts). Information is offered in simple statements without commentary, the attractive layout features full-color photographs of children in many different scenes, and selected words are bolded within the text and later explained in the glossary. Appended are key facts about the country, an index, a bibliography, and a short list of words and their many variants (e.g., apartamento-departamento; bus-autob#s-cami?n; calabaza-guaje). These books will be invaluable for homework assignments and will appeal to readers who are curious about life in other countries.

Sorry, we'll tell you what countries you are allowed to be curious about.

This is quite close to the issue that the Supreme Court failed to decide in the 4-1-4 Board of Education v. Pico (1982) case. My sense is that Justice Rehnquist had the better of that argument — a school library is a means for the school to communicate to children those views that it thinks are accurate, educational, and generally right (or at least plausible). It may well be good for the school to take a latitudinarian approach to this, and to include even things that are controversial, that contradict each other, or that contradict some of the values that the school is trying to inculcate. But that seems to me a judgment call for the school to make, and not a constitutional command.

This is especially so as to books aimed at second-to-fourth graders. Consider how the Miami Herald article that Michael points to describes it:

A portrait of kids outfitted as Pioneers — Cuba's communist youth group — is emblazoned across the book's cover. Inside pages show scenes of a joyous carnival held on July 26, the anniversary of the Cuban revolution....

The publisher's website says the series is intended to help readers understand what it's like to be a child in another land. The books are geared toward children ages 5-7 in grades K-2....

It seems to me that a school board might reasonably conclude that the book conveys an inaccurately positive image of life in Communist Cuba, and improperly implicitly praises the Cuban revolution and its works; others might interpret it differently, but a school board ought to have very broad discretion deciding what books 5-to-7-year-olds should be seeing in the school board's library.

By the way, what if there had been a similar travelogue on "A Visit to South Africa" in the mid-1980s, showing pictures of smiling happy white children in White Summer Camps wearing uniforms of some pro-apartheid youth group, plus a picture of smiling happy black children in Black Summer Camps for good measure? Seems to me that when school libraries contain such books, children — especially very young children — might reasonably see the things being described in those books as good; and school officials should therefore be entitled to exclude books that positively depict things that school officials do not want to endorse.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Public School Curricular Decisions and the Constitution:
  2. School Libraries and Kids' Books That Seem To Put Communist Cuba in a Positive Light:
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[Ilya Somin (guest-blogging), April 6, 2006 at 9:33pm] Trackbacks
Public School Curricular Decisions and the Constitution:

This is a post I sent to a con-law e-mail list about Eugene's analysis of the Miami school's decision to exclude a pro-Castro book from the school library. I thought it might be of interest to some VC readers as well:

It seems to me that running a public school necessarily involves choosing between different ideas on the merits, and excluding at least some of them. We cannot teach all conceivable viewpoints in, say, a public school history class. Therefore, schools will probably teach the Holocaust without much (if any) consideration of the views of Holocaust deniers. Similarly, they will teach science courses without including the views of the Flat Earth Society. To say that this is unconstitutional is to say that public schooling itself is unconstitutional.

The same goes for school libraries. They cannot stock copies of every book ever published. Therefore, they have to make choices based in part on the quality of the book's content and how it fits in with the school's curriculum. The perceived accuracy of the ideas in the book is going to be a part of any evaluation of quality. Holocaust denial books, pro-flat earth books, and others will inevitably get short shrift.

Although I agree with the Miami school's decision in this particular case, I do not like the general idea of giving government such power. Obviously, they will sometimes use it to indoctrinate children in ideas that are wrong and exclude ideas I think are right; and even the exclusion of mistaken ideas can also cause harm for Millean reasons. Worse, the indoctrination - if adopted as policy by a state or federal government - could spread to millions of children across a wide area, not just to those who attend any one school.

To my mind, the best solution would be to get government out of the business of supplying education (though it could still fund it through vouchers or tax credits). That would reduce, if not eliminate, the state's ability to engage in large-scale indoctrination of children. Individual private schools might still make bad decisions on these issues, but there would be no centralized authority capable of enforcing a dangerous orthodoxy throughout the whole of the nation or an entire state. But I do not think that this approach is required by the Constitution. So long as we have public schools, we must also give the state the power to determine which ideas will be represented in the curriculum and which will not.

UPDATE: This is not essential to the more general argument I am making in the post. But it may interest readers to know that my parents (like nearly all children in the Soviet Union) were members of the Soviet Pioneers, the youth organization group on which the Cuban Young Pioneers were explicity modeled (even the name is virtually identical). The main purpose of both organizations was to indoctrinate children in communist ideology and teach them to hate the regime's enemies (both domestic dissidents and foreign opponents, especially the US). Most if not all the children were well aware of this for the good reason that it was constantly drummed into them. An elementary school textbook that discusses the Pioneers without mentioning their main function is inexcusably misleading. It would be like a textbook that portrayed the Hitler Youth (which had many similarities to the Pioneers) as an organization focused on sports and camping without mentioning that its main purpose was indoctrinating German children in loyalty to the Nazis.

I still remember watching a documentary on the Hitler Youth with my father when I was 9 or 10, and him commenting on how the rituals and indoctrination methods portrayed in the film were so similar to those he experienced in the Pioneers.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Public School Curricular Decisions and the Constitution:
  2. School Libraries and Kids' Books That Seem To Put Communist Cuba in a Positive Light:
101 Comments