Thursday, January 22, 2015

2015's First Curmie Contender: Because Alabama Kids Shouldn’t Know Alabama History

Surely no History Club ought to be interested in this, right?
Well, it didn’t take long for the first Curmie contender for 2015 to emerge. In DeKalb County, Alabama, Superintendent Hugh Taylor decided unilaterally that the high school’s history club couldn’t attend a local showing of the film “Selma.”

This is problematic at a lot of levels, but let’s just pick a couple. We start with optics. To be sure, reality trumps perception, but it would be difficult to invent a scenario with a worse appearance in political terms than having a white administrator in a majority minority district in Alabama cancel an optional outing to see a movie about one of the seminal moments in this country’s civil rights movement as we near the 50th anniversary of those Selma to Montgomery marches—and to squeeze the announcement neatly into the three-day window between the film’s Oscar nomination for Best Picture and the national holiday honoring the film’s central character, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The rationale Taylor’s decision looks pretty shaky, too. He expressed concerns over obscene language, “racial profanity,” and placing teachers in the position of playing parents. Curmie’s eyebrow just reached skyward, Gentle Reader, his opposite eye squinted, and his olfactory senses detected the presence of bovine fecal matter.

Curmie hasn’t seen the film yet, but does not doubt the presence of potentially offensive language in the screenplay. But we must remember that this is a history club event, not a class. No students are being forced against their will to go on this outing, and there would seem to be no issues that couldn’t be solved with a simple parental consent form whereby parents would acknowledge the potential for offense and grant the accompanying teachers (who would appear ready to handle the responsibility) the authority to deal with any situations that might arise.

Note also that the problem isn’t that the film presents an ahistorial perspective, à la “JFK.” It may be the film isn’t historically accurate, but that’s not the objection.

So it’s difficult to argue with the Reverend James Stanton, an African-American man who lived through the civil rights movement, and whose daughter is one of the students denied the opportunity to see the film with the history club. Rev. Stanton suspects that administrators have “something that they are not wanting exposed or the children not to know about. I don’t believe it is just about the profanity.” Usually, Curmie would view such claims with more than a little skepticism, but Taylor’s explanation just doesn’t seem very credible.

Of course, even if Taylor shut down the field trip for precisely the reason he stated, that wouldn’t make the decision a good one, merely an honest one. Real education is crippled by inoffensiveness. The entirety of human history is littered with offensiveness: war, disease, poverty, racism, sexism, slavery, brutality. Thomas Hobbes famously described the life of man as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”; there are times Curmie wonders if ol’ Tom wasn’t a bit of an optimist. Certainly if we were to strip away from the study of history all items that might conceivably offend someone, there would be nothing left.

What’s really offensive is the suggestion that art and history alike should be reduced to nice, polite platitudes that discreetly paper over the reality. MLK was not, is not, a hero to millions because he faced no obstacles, but precisely because he did. He was cursed, spat upon literally and figuratively, and subjected to every racial insult his boorish antagonists could imagine. But he persevered, and whereas the world and nation we inhabit is far from a post-racial utopia, it sure as hell is a lot more transparent, more tolerant, and more just than the one Dr. King sought to transform.

And so we’re left with a white administrator condescendingly (in both senses of the term) protecting black folks from the unpleasantness of the past. Or is it the white folks he’s really protecting? The foregoing question, Gentle Reader, borders on the rhetorical.

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