Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Banning Knowledge

You've all heard about this thing where a school has pulled the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary from its shelves, pending review, right?

This is ridiculous on so many counts, and I'm glad the school board members are speaking up and wondering where their voice is in this, but in a way this is hitting me more personally than some of the other book challenges and removals that have been publicized lately.

I DEPENDED on the dictionary when I was a kid. I grew up in a very modest kind of family where even the mildest of "bad" words were never heard and children didn't watch R-rated movies--usually even PG-13. To be honest, I liked it that way. My home seemed peaceful compared to many other homes I visited, and I wasn't forced to have embarrassing conversations with my parents.

But I did hear about things sometimes, in books, on TV, in school. Sometimes kids would be amused if I didn't know what something meant. Then it would turn out they didn't REALLY know, either.

I remember reading a children's book about the Salem witch trials; it mentioned that Abigail Williams grew up to be a prostitute. I could tell from context clues that this was something shocking, but I had no idea what it was. It sounded kind of like a lawyer (I knew the word "prosecute"). Maybe it was something that was considered a man's job in those times, like being a lawyer was. I remember innocently asking Laurie "What's a prostitute?".

Dead silence from the bottom bunk. "I think the dictionary could explain it better than I could," she said. And she reached for our paperback dictionary and read the definition aloud. I got the picture, although I had never heard of such a thing. We both continued reading. Embarrassing conversation smartly averted.

After that, I remember turning to the dictionary again whenever I needed to. My friend's sister called her a "lesbian". Those two were always having shouting matches and namecalling was a daily occurrence, but neither of us knew what this meant. Over the telephone, when my friend asked me if I knew, I looked it up in the dictionary. "A female homosexual," I said. Then I looked up "homosexual". We both thought this was a strange word to use as an insult against a ten-year-old girl, but at least we knew what it meant.

I looked up "condom" when I heard it used on the show Head of the Class (the first dictionary I checked, a children's dictionary, had only "condominium"; this was very confusing). And I looked up "oral sex" when I heard kids making jokes about it on the bus.

Why, why, why would people want to keep kids away from information? I can't understand it for a second. Usually I can at least see a smidgen of the other side's view. But it isn't like kids are going to be looking up "oral sex" if they haven't already heard of it. It isn't like the dictionary says something controversial. If a parent's relationship with a kid is such that they think the kid would (and should) come to them with a question about what oral sex is, that conversation isn't going to be derailed by the dictionary definition (for the record: "oral stimulation of the genitals").

"It's hard to sit and read the dictionary, but we'll be looking to find other things of a graphic nature," Cadmus [a district spokesperson] said.

Anyone else have "saved by dictionary" tales?


Wendy said...

I want to mention something, in case it isn't clear enough--I just had a twitter exchange with my other sister. She said
"As long as Mom doesn't have to read that post!"

My response:
"I don't think it would embarrass her. Or make her feel bad. After all, who gave me a dictionary and the skills to use it?"

Also, reading over what I wrote here, the part that strikes me as saddest is that I was confused when I tried to look up "condom" in a children's dictionary and found only "condominium". Because that's the possible result we're going to see in this case--only children's dictionaries available to the students in those classrooms. I was nine years old when that episode aired.

Wendy said...

Oh, I think my sister's comment was in reference to a story that she will share later... I make no guarantees about whether anyone else's stories would embarrass my mother!

Paige Y. said...

Sex simply wasn't talked about in our house. It wasn't made out to be dirty, it was just a private topic. So I used our public library to find out what I needed. Thanks goodness there was a wealth of resources.

Children need to be able to find out information in a manner in which they won't be embarrassed. Libraries (and dictionaries) do that.

Jennifer said...

I'm always a bit nonplussed by parents who object to "language" in books. Do they send their kids to school with earplugs? I've heard elementary school kids at the library say stuff that is waaaay worse than anything even in some of our YA books. And yes, we live in a fairly conservative, small community. Better to have a dictionary so you can look up what the other kids are saying instead of repeating it in public and getting in a whole lotta trouble...

Kathleen McDade said...

My story has nothing to do with Mom, but it does relate to your comment about children's dictionaries.

Okay. So I was maybe 11, and we were on vacation and staying at someone else's house. I was reading Susan Howatch's Penmarric. I wanted to look up "fornication." I had some idea what it meant, but I wanted the exact definition.

So I asked our host for a dictionary, and he tried to give me a children's dictionary. I told him I didn't think that would work, and he asked what I wanted to look up.

Well, I didn't want to tell him THAT, so I came up with another word from the book: pugnacious. And he gave me a definition (although I don't know that I've ever looked up the exact definition of that either!).

That said, I have to say that I don't think looking up words related to sex is the only reason children need to have access to a real dictionary. :-) And it's valuable to be able to find the answers independently, regardless of the subject.

Kimbra Kasch said...

I used to read the dictionary, as a kid. Talk about boring childhoods. Sheesh.

Anonymous said...

So are they going to censure dictionaries, now? O_o
There is being controlling and being controlling. It's just my opinion, but there are some information and conversation that kids need to have. It is the best way to protect them, rather than keeping them in an ignorance that will not protect them against ill-intentioned strangers...

Your post is great. I can see how Prosecute and that other word are close and thus confusing... :)

Sandy D. said...

I remember looking up the word "gullible" after my older brother said I was (after telling me that he was a heroin addict, because I found an empty syringe in his tacklebox. Finding out it was used to inflate worms for bait was almost more horrible).

Doret said...

I love this parents comment

"Censorship in the schools, really? Pretty soon the only dictionary in the school library will be the Bert and Ernie dictionary," said Emanuel Chavez, the parent of second- and sixth-grade students."

It's sad funny and true all at the same time

Michelle The Artist said...

I remember looking up "oral sex" when I was younger but for the life of me couldn't figure out why someone would want to talk to someone's genitals. :)

Kristi said...

When I first heard this story, my immediate assumption was that it was from the Onion. Learning that it was, in fact, a real thing in the world has somewhat dampened my opinion of human intelligence.

Shelli (srjohannes) said...

i dont understand it at all. very sad. I still use the dictionary all the time!

Emily said...

I used to think that "procrastinate" was a dirty word, and was shocked when Cathy of the eponymous comic strip guiltily admitted to that vice. I don't remember looking it up, but I probably did. Not confused anymore, at least.

SiS said...

This is a little off-topic, but it is a dictionary story: I used to like reading the dictionary, looking for new words or funny definitions. I don't know if that is what led to my sister and I memorizing the following definition or not, but, anyway, we did... and we'd say it in a very deep, exaggerated, menacing voice. "A large, hairy, solitary bee, that bores tunnels in wood for its nest." I'm not sure why, exactly, we thought this was so funny... but thank you, readily available dictionary, for amusing us.

Unknown said...

Well said, and funny. I agree, the dictionary was frequently used in our house, as were the encyclopedias. By the way, Mom was the one who told me about this post, and she seemed to find it amusing.