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Friday, Oct 24, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Prudence, not prohibition, guides school district

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Let's start by opening the most ginormous possible umbrella. Think of a golf bumbershoot large enough to accommodate Tiger Woods, his caddy and his entire swooning welcome-back entourage. That's where the following phrase belongs:

Banning books is a bad idea.

I think it's possible to agree on that as a starting point, just as we can agree about exercise, renewable energy and “Newhart” reruns being, generally speaking, beneficial to individuals and society. Taken to extremes, however, and you can find problems in even the noblest human pursuits.

Too much exercise can compromise your joints; renewables demand subsidies to compete; and binge-watching “Newhart” promotes stuh-stuh-stuttering.

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Similarly, there is book-banning — which reasonable people in a free society properly deplore — and then there is what the principal at John Long Middle School did when she deleted “Paper Towns” from the list of summer reading recommendations for its rising eighth-graders after a parent raised objections to some of the book's racier passages. Subsequently, Kurt Browning's top brass at the Pasco County School District began drafting a procedure to alert parents about potentially controversial material before it has a chance to get into students' hands.

Neither activity constitutes banning books. In fact, 17 copies of “Paper Towns” circulate among Pasco's high schools, and virtual copies are available through Gulf High School's pioneering digital media center. So, consider “Paper Towns” not even remotely banned in the Pasco County school district. Banning occurs when government officials order books removed from shelves, restricted from sale or, as happened frequently in the late 19th century, denied transport across state lines.

These days, we'd run out of office anyone who tried to pull the latter two stunts. Meanwhile, the shelves of American public libraries groan under the weight of books that, even now, lots of people for lots of different reasons consider objectionable. School boards, however, still tangle with book banning. Just last April, for instance, an Idaho district maintained its prohibition on “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” bowing to critics who lament its references to masturbation, use of profanity and denigration of Christianity.

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To reiterate: Pasco's district pooh-bahs haven't ripped “Paper Towns” — or any other book, for that matter — from the hands of its young scholars. For assorted good reasons, not the least of them being the surest way to increase demand for a book, especially among adolescents, is to banish it. (Whether this means they should try banning “Atlas Shrugged,” “Pride and Prejudice” or the works of David McCullough is a thought experiment for another day.)

As for “Paper Towns,” the book won stellar reviews, captured awards for young-adult literature and, even now, six years after its publication, earns near-capacity stars on booksellers' websites. It is not, in other words, pulp trash. It does, however, intrude on certain boundaries — no doubt that was at least part of author John Green's mission — boundaries, in more than enough households to command our respect, reasonable parents believe they are responsible for setting and defending.

This is not to suggest edginess has no place in public school curricula. It does, but what constitutes age appropriateness remains, exclusively, the parental province. Go on, snicker if you like. Denigrate parents protective of their offsprings' innocence as another category of What's Wrong With America. Be happy in your smug slouching toward Gomorrah.

Meanwhile, Hollywood's movie ratings ostensibly acknowledge the role of responsible adults to monitor what their children are exposed to. That Pasco school officials have resolved to recognize and honor this arrangement is to their enduring credit.

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