The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

The very aim and end of our institutions is just this: that we may think what we like and say what we think.... ...Oliver Wendell Holmes...

Commentary of the Day - January 29, 2001:  The "Book Burners" Are Still Alive Behind the Orange Curtain:

As many of you know, the Irascible Professor most often writes his commentary from his hometown in north Orange County, CA (not too far from Disneyland).  In fact, the IP has been a resident of Orange County off and on since 1953.  During that time the county has grown from a largely rural ranching and farming region with little more than 300,000 in total population to an urban megalopolis with more than 2.5 million people.  The orange groves that once stretched from the county's northern and eastern boundaries with Los Angeles and Riverside counties down through Tustin and Santa Ana are no more.  The sprawling fields of sugar beets and lima beans that stretched south from Santa Ana are long gone, having been replaced with the thriving cities that grew up around the campus of the University of California, Irvine.

The character of the county has changed as well.  At one time residents of Los Angeles, would say -- only half in jest -- that they needed to get their passports stamped when they traveled south to spend a day at Newport Beach or Laguna.  Indeed, in the fifties and before the politics of Orange County were so completely dominated by far right-wingers that Dwight Eisenhower was though to be a flaming liberal by many county residents.  In those days we were represented in Congress by James B. Utt, who was known both for his right-wing intransigence and for the fact that he probably was the dumbest person ever to grace the halls of Congress.  To be sure, following Utt we sent some real winners to Congress including John Schmitz of John Birch Society fame, the notoriously homophobic Bill Dannemeyer, and "B-1 Bob" Dornan who spent most of his time in the House foaming at the mouth over Bill Clinton's peccadilloes.

But things indeed have changed.  In the euphemistic words of a real estate agent I once encountered, the county is much more "cosmopolitan" than it once was.  Long gone are the days when the choleric R.C. Hoiles spewed anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant venom across the pages of his Santa Ana Register newspaper.  (The Santa Ana Register has since become the Orange County Register, and though its editorial pages still echo the paper's "libertarian" roots the news pages are no longer so obviously biased.)

Though the county is still conservative and Republican in its politics, the number of Democratic voters has increased significantly.  In 1996 Loretta Sanchez ousted Bob Dornan by a whisper thin margin of 979 votes.  Two years later she cleaned his clock in a 57% to 40% landslide; and in the 2000 election Sanchez won in another landslide (60%) over her Republican challenger Gloria Matta Tuchman (35.2%), who is best known as an advocate of "English only" laws.

Nevertheless, there remains yet a fringe element of vocal ultra-right-wing wackos in the county.  Confirming Mark Twain's observation that: "In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.",  many of the school boards in Orange County cities harbor one or two (or in some case a majority) of these fanatics who view public education as suspect, if not subversive.  Their fanaticism usually stems from an unholy mix of fundamentalist religion and hard-right politics.  They do their best to turn back the clock, and to sabotage any efforts to improve public education.

A case in point, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times by reporter Jeff Gottlieb, is the attempt by Newport-Mesa Unified School District Board member Wendy Leece to ban two well-known books from the district's high schools because of their alleged "sexual content".  The books in question are the best-seller Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson and Of Love and Shadows by Isabel Allende and Margaret Sayers Peden.  Guterson's book won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1995.  The IP read this book a few years back, an in his opinion it is a sensitive study of racial discrimination and young love.  Both books have been made into movies.

The IP hasn't read Of Love and Shadows, but one can get a feel for its content from excerpts from two reviews.  The first is by a Redlands, California high school student.  The second is from the book jacket.

I read this book in order to study the coup of Pinochet in Chile as part of a class in high school. Allende is such a wonderful author that I was captured by this novel and unable to put it down. The characters are so real that they wrap themselves in the sympathy of the reader.  This book was both entertaining and enlightening. Allende is one of the best  writers in any language.

"Allende skillfully evokes both the terrors of daily life under military rule and the subtler forms of resistance in the hidden corners . . . She can just as deftly depict loving tenderness as convey the high fire of eroticism. And when you've successfully mingled sex and politics with a noble cause, how can you go wrong?"--New York Times Book Review

The IP suspects that the political content of both books had as much to do with Leece's attempts to ban them as their sexual content.  Clearly, Snow Falling on Cedars is no more sexually charged than the average daytime television show.  Allende's book may be a bit more racy but hardly beyond what the average teenager sees at the movies these days.

Leece's agenda becomes clearer when one notes that in addition to trying ban these two novels from advanced placement English classes, she also voted against the adoption of Biology, Principles and Explorations probably because it includes some discussion of evolution.  To be sure, there may be valid reasons to criticize this book on pedagogical grounds.  But one has to doubt that this was Leece's motivation.

The IP hopes that the majority of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District Board will have the good sense not to ban those two novels.  However, if they do decide to ban them let's hope that most of those Newport Beach AP English students will have the good sense to sneak down to their local bookstore to buy them anyway.  After all what could encourage a high school kid more to read a book than the knowledge that the "adults" wanted to ban it.

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© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.