School Board Shouldnt Wage Misguided Battle Over Book Ban
Written by Michael Lewis on June 29, 2006
By Michael Lewis
The Miami-Dade School Board is about to waste hundreds of thousands of dollars to show hundreds of thousands of students how bad life under Fidel Castro is – by doing as he does.
The board correctly abhors a tyrant who has destroyed free expression in Cuba. Unfortunately, the board itself doesn’t understand free expression.
Under our Bill of Rights, people may write things with which the majority disagree – even when the majority is right. And our courts have ruled that school boards may not yank books from libraries because they dislike the ideas in them.
Nonetheless, the board has banned a book about Cuba – a book for children ages 5-7! – because it’s not politically correct. That’s not what the board says, but that’s the reason.
The problem is, the book shows happy children living in the Communist dictatorship. Plus, it doesn’t spell out that Cuba is run by a tyrant – those 5- to 7-year-old readers aren’t being indoctrinated to hate Castro.
Castro, of course, makes sure that his own pupils know how evil the US is. Our school board is getting down to his level. Great lesson for students.
Two weeks ago, the board banned "Vamos a Cuba" in two languages, proving that bilingualism is no barrier to lack of communication. To be thorough, it also banished books on 23 other nations in the same series, although none mentions Cuba.
Of course, the board was sued and it will lose. It didn’t follow the advice of its attorney, the advice of two school-system review committees, the advice of its own superintendent, judicial guidelines for treatment of books in schools or – of course – the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
So the board plans to get outside attorneys to defend the indefensible. It will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars yet lose because its chairman and some members have been quoted as disagreeing with the book’s orientation – and the courts have ruled that school boards may not do that.
Chairman Augustin Barrera reportedly said the book should be replaced with another one that "talks about the richness and the culture the Cuban people have lived."
"We want it replaced with a book that talks about the facts of what Cuba is today," The New York Times quotes Mr. Barrera as saying. "Cuba is a dictatorship, and we want the material in our libraries to be factual, not misrepresented."
Across 90 miles of water, we can hear Mr. Castro saying the same kinds of things about us, in reverse. Unlike our school board, he would prevail, because Cuba is indeed a dictatorship. But following his lead is no way to prove that this is a country – unlike Cuba – where people are free to read things that don’t follow the party line, even if they’re wrong.
School board members say the book is inaccurate and doesn’t paint a full picture of Cuba. No doubt they are right. They used the same reasoning to ban books on 23 other countries.
Unfortunately, that reasoning would empty every school library. No book can fully detail any topic. And all would offend someone who wants to tout a given viewpoint.
Who, after all, would try to tell youngsters of 5 or 6 or 7 about the political structure of China, the multiple governments in Italy’s history – or, for that matter, about challenges to free speech in Miami? That’s inappropriate, unless you have an agenda with which you want to inculcate children very early. Castro does; we shouldn’t.
Board members talk about the book’s inaccuracies, focusing on just when paintings were made in caves – hardly central to a social-studies series on cultures around the globe.
Of course, no factual error, however trivial, should get past editors. No book should have any. But most do. One book on Miami is so riddled with errors on street names that it reflects on the quality of research. Still, the book has useful content.
American history texts many of us read contained misleading and inaccurate portrayals of some people and omitted some groups entirely. Blacks, women and religious minorities were among those groups. The pendulum then swung the other way, with texts focusing on what was omitted. Which of those books should have been banned for improper focus? None. Yet none is totally inclusive.
"Vamos a Cuba" isn’t the only book ever banned – just about every classic of literature has joined a lot of trash in suffering that fate.
Miami-Dade isn’t the only place that ever banned books, and it isn’t the only one that looks laughable for why it bans – a failure to inculcate 5-year-olds with proper political views, citing as misleading a sentence that "People in Cuba eat, work and go to school like you do."
Googling "banned books" finds 1.2 million references. The banning of this book by this school board constitutes only 291 of those.
Many people think free expression ends when they disagree. But we should be teaching students that free speech is for speech we detest as well as for speech we applaud. Castro teaches it the other way, but that’s why the world’s most vibrant Cuban community is in Miami, not Havana.
A federal lawsuit filed last week by the school district’s own Student Government Association and the American Civic Liberties Union is headed for trial. The school board has less chance of winning than Castro has of being elected the next school-board chairman.
And, as the case goes through the courts, the nation and the world will be laughing at a banana republic that’s taking a lesson from Castro. We don’t need that kind of shame any more than our students on the other side of the case need this bad lesson from their misguided elders.
So how can the board extricate itself from a no-win situation?
Members will never reverse their vote because constituents have been whipped into a frenzy. Now the board must defend the ouster of books about 23 other nations even though members have never read the books. They’ve painted themselves into a corner.
The solution is to belatedly listen to legal counsel that’s telling board members politely that they’re flat-out wrong. Instead of fighting on and on, from a lower court to the next level and the next in search of vindication that can never come in a free society, members should let their lawyers tell them they cannot win and just give up the fight.
That way, they don’t have to reverse themselves. They can go on telling the public how bad the Cuban dictatorship is but they’re forced by law to keep on the shelves a book that shows children smiling.
The board doesn’t have to go on promoting this book (the surest way to sell a sexy novel in the US decades ago was to advertise that it was banned in Boston). It can just leave 49 copies sitting on shelves in 33 schools. Board members can place beside it all the books they want saying how bad Cuba is today – that’s legal and do-able.
The fact is, no children are assigned to read this book. It’s not a text. It’s just in libraries. Leave it there and move on. Blame the law, the First Amendment, the weather or whatever.
The quicker the board can be "forced" by its own lawyers to abandon its quest for purity in print, the less embarrassment for the board and for Miami.