To the Editor:
The Darien Public Library is hosting a series of guest lectures focused on free speech. The first lecture, “From Cancel Culture to Book Bans: Is Free Expression Under Attack“, featuring Aaron Terr from FIRE, was, as articulated by a library representative, partially a response to “fringe groups” in Darien that are “actively working to ban books they think other people’s high school age children should not be be able to read.”
As a Darien resident with no allegiance to any political party or ideologically-motivated organization, I was disappointed that nobody from the library attempted to articulate what exactly these alleged “fringe” groups take issue with. I personally do question how the books highlighted below ended up in Darien’s school libraries (not the public library, to be clear). While I don’t think these books should be “banned” or go unpublished, I question their learning value, age appropriateness, and accessibility in a school setting.
I applaud FIRE’s work and found Terr’s lecture refreshing. He seemed fair, reasonable, and sincere. He provided examples of free speech hypocrisy from both the right and the left. Frankly, I agreed with everything he said in the abstract. I assume his remarks were meant to be general and not specific to Darien. In fact, Darien would be wise to heed his recommendations and employ his critical thinking. His analysis of the Supreme Court case Pico v. Board of Education was especially insightful. The findings from Pico relevant to Darien are as follows:
- School libraries should place a particular emphasis on age appropriateness relative to other types of libraries
- The 1st Amendment protects against arbitrary censorship in schools
- Books housed in school libraries that aren’t part of the curriculum warrant less scrutiny than books presented in class; the former books provide opportunities for optional self exploration and individual enrichment
- The key question is what motivates the demand for a book removal from the library
- The court differentiated between a good faith determination of age appropriateness and hostility to a political or philosophical idea; the latter crosses the 1st amendment line
- Robust definitions of contested terminology are necessary to avoid arbitrary book removal
- Predetermined, transparent, and unbiased procedures (“due process” for books per Terr) help ensure community confidence and trust
With regard to age appropriateness, Terr distinguished sexually explicit content from themes or ideas that some people don’t like. Referencing a sexual encounter in the context of a larger plot differs from gratuitous, unnecessarily descriptive sex scenes. Reservations about the latter also fundamentally differ from hostility to Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, Huck Finn, Catcher In The Rye, or books that accurately depict historical injustices or non-traditional family arrangements. Like Terr, I believe schools should cultivate curiosity, diversity of thought, and intellectual friction. Terr stated that there is no sole arbiter of what constitutes something like offensiveness or age appropriateness; there should be no “unchallengeable dogmas”. Therefore, a diverse committee of stakeholders, including parents, is necessary to achieve a satisfactory consensus about curricular decisions and the accessibility of various educational resources.
Currently, Darien lacks this type of transparency and stakeholder diversity which is why most parents aren’t aware that books including the following highly sexualized, graphic scenes are available in Darien school libraries:
- An account of a six year old girl performing oral sex on boys in her neighborhood
- Young boys urinating on one another while laying in bed
- A game featuring 9th grade boys ejaculating into a bottle at summer camp whose loser was pressured to drink the contents
- A conversation between two siblings during which they discuss how to pleasure themselves and eating “vagina slime”
At no point have any school officials acknowledged the actual content of these books or justified how these particular scenes are aligned with the school’s educational goals. There has been no interactive public discourse on the subject. These books are tied to a broader movement, Social Emotional Learning (SEL), that aims to improve student mental health and advocate for psychologically at-risk children. The suppositions made by SEL advocates have also not been thoroughly challenged in a public forum in Darien either; they are just assumed to be effective and within the schools’ domain despite concerns that the practice of SEL in schools is effectively group psychology performed by unlicensed providers. SEL also raises questions about the line between mental health prevention and psychological treatment and whether either practice is permissible without parental consent in a public school.
Rather than address the specific content contained in the aforementioned books, officials respond to concerned parents with truisms about the importance of mental health and inclusivity as if group ejaculation sessions and masturbation tutorials among siblings are definitively empowering our youth and bolstering their sense of self-worth. SEL and the availability of school library books that contain pictorial depictions of oral sex represent a major paradigm shift in education. Nevertheless, parents and even their elected proxies, including board of education members, typically don’t learn about these drastic changes until after they’ve been implemented which speaks to how broken the process is. At a minimum, books like these could be available in the school library but require parental consent to check out. Parents who want to expose their own children to this type of material need not do so by making it readily available in the public school system.
Regardless, SEL initiatives, including the availability of library books that historically would be classified as pornography, are generally implemented swiftly and secretly with little to no oversight. Darien schools need to stop weaponizing youth mental health and dismissing discerning parents as “book banners”, and instead address contentious books on a case by case basis. My own children might eventually encounter mental health challenges and/or identify as part of a relatively vulnerable group. Not every initiative conducted in the name of youth wellness is per se beneficial hence the need for real scrutiny and conversation. I especially wouldn’t want to project my parental preferences or experimental programs I might support onto everyone else’s children via the state. Moreover, Darien may be violating its own internet safety policy when these stories are available as ebooks. Some of the most sexually explicit scenes in Darien school libraries are in cartoon form. As seen in the policy document here, the word “cartoon” was literally crossed out of the section on child pornography which only breeds further suspicion.
Social norms change and curricula evolve. Good ideas don’t prevail, however, without transparency and real consensus from ideologically diverse stakeholders. Avoiding genuine conversation and interactive dialogue, as is occurring now, erodes trust in educational institutions, creates preventable controversy, and begets cynicism.