As an educator, there is nothing sadder to me than a generation of young people who have been so rarely challenged in their critical thinking skills. In the college classroom, I get a solid run of students who have always won a prize and never had to face the word, “no,” in any real way. A gross generalization, but the fact is many of the students come from a world where their feelings were so protected, their ability to adapt and recover from disappointments has been compromised. So when I heard about Oldham County’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” assignment and the controversy surrounding it, I shook my head. This ignorant America rages on. Do we want our children to solve the problems of the future?
The situation, in a nutshell, stems from a student drawing inspired by the novel. On one side of the paper a man dressed in Ku Klux Klan garb points a gun at a blindfolded black man. On the other side of the paper, a police does the same but this time the victim is contemporary, still black, wearing a hoodie and holding candy. In the news report I watched, a man that I’m assuming was the parent of a different student at the school was shocked that a child would have drawn this and because the child had an interpretation of violence, the school should not have allowed it. His argument was that cops were for our protection and defense. His argument, in theory, is correct. Cops are supposed to serve and protect but some of them cross real boundaries and impede the civil rights of those to whom they are sworn to serve. Because of this theory, this father felt the child’s art was out of line.
That any parent would deem a child’s response to his world invalid illuminates why we have a culture of children who find functioning in the world a challenge. When a child is not given agency to form opinions and ideas about their surroundings, they are being robbed of the opportunity to develop skills they will need throughout their lives. This includes all ideas that might come as a shock to their parents. The same way we invalidate our children, we are enraged when it happens to us.
Children need the opportunity to form selves outside of our influence. They need to explore the world, to develop instincts and assumptions that are solely theirs. The father who felt the image was inappropriate would do well to sit one out. He doesn’t understand the drawing but that does not mean the drawing has no validity. For this young artist, the existence of police violence and continued police violence against blacks is real. The artist isn’t alone.
As a parent, my job isn’t to tell my child what to think. I’d like to think I have some influence on that but the risk is that my child is not a constant. He is unpredictable, human — a variable. What he brings to the information that I give him, I cannot control. The best I can hope for is that he has been given correct and honest information from me and that he uses it to make the strongest inferences he can.
When our children push the violence we have allowed to grow in our society back in our faces, we have to acknowledge our complicity and figure out a way to either stop it or fight back against it. We can’t discount their interpretation because of our own embarrassment and acculturation.
I have never understood the idea of censorship as a method of control. Just because you silence something publicly does not mean it stops happening. This is true of burning books, as if the ideas evaporate with them. It is true of attempts to outlaw abortions, as if Roe v. Wade was the beginning of abortion. It is just as true of any attempt to squash an interpretation of our violent society. Out of sight may mean out of mind but it does not equate to being out of existence. That kind of thinking is naïve at best and destructive at its worst.
To ignore problems is to allow them to grow. To ignore our children is to pretend that the future is somehow preventable. It isn’t, and listening to our kids helps us make decisions that can improve the possibilities for them. This artwork isn’t inappropriate. The violence that it depicts is. Our energies would be better spent finding remedies for brutality than arguing with our educators.