The Financial Post
Saturday, February 15, 1997

What Freedom Really Is

by David Frum

Imagine this. You walk into a bookstore, see a novel on sale, flip through it, notice that the language seems pretty raw, and decide not to buy it. Have you committed an act of censorship?

Apparently so, according to critics of the Milton parents protesting the presence of an explicit novel on their local high school's curriculum.

The book, Foxfire, was written by American novelist Joyce Carol Oates. It's the story of a gang of girls who begin by physically attacking their town's thuggish male chauvinists, and then move on to wilder and wilder crimes. The language of the book is raw, to put it mildly, and the lead character is a lesbian.

It's important to understand what the Milton parents are saying. They are not saying the state should suppress Foxfire. All they are doing is asking that it not be included on the list of books that teachers in Halton region can require their students to read.

In other words, it isn't the parents of Milton who are trying to use the power of government to impose their beliefs on other people -- it's the school board and its many defenders in the press.

Struggles like the fight in Milton break out again and again across the country. When they are reported, it is always the teacher or the school board or the provincial ministry of education bent on assigning an obnoxious book that is cast as the champion of freedom.

The parents who are asking merely that the government not use its schools to attack their values are almost always portrayed as censors.

The parents, who just want to be left alone, are cast as aggressors against freedom. The educators, who want to overthrow the values of the students' families and replace them with beliefs of their own, are cast -- not as arrogant social engineers -- but as liberators.

This familiar story line completely misunderstands what freedom is. To say a teacher ought to be "free" to teach whatever she likes makes about as much sense as saying a policeman ought to be "free" to arrest whomever he likes.

A policeman who claims an unlimited freedom to arrest is the people's master, not their employee; and the same is true for a teacher or any other public functionary. Freedom protects people from the state; it isn't a licence for employees of the state to impose their values on the people who pay their salaries.

Unfortunately, it's not only the ideal of "freedom" that the authorities determined to impose objectionable books on unwilling communities abuse. They abuse the ideals of literature and learning as well. Defenders of Foxfire contend that Joyce Carol Oates is a much-praised author, and demand to know who but a Philistine would dare object to her presence on the curriculum?

To this, there are three answers. The first is that a lot of people who care about literature do not think very highly of Oates. We consider her a bore, who relies on sensationalism to compensate for her lack of literary inventiveness, and whose good reviews are rewards for her dogmatic feminism much more than for literary merit.

The second answer is that even if Oates were every bit as wonderful as her admirers say, that wouldn't automatically make her appropriate reading for young people. Vladimir Nabokov is a much greater writer than Oates, but I doubt there's a board of education in Canada that would assign Lolita to teenagers.

The third and strongest answer, however, is this: the people who put Foxfire on their reading list were not thinking about its literary merits at all. More and more of the people who teach high school English see their job as providing therapy. They develop curricula to deal with what educators call "issues": drug abuse, crime, sex, and they use these books, not to teach an understanding of literature, but to encourage students to while away the classroom hour chatting about teenagers and their troubles.

High school English ought to be the beginning of a lifelong involvement with the classics of our literature. Nowadays, it is just another stage in a lifelong involvement with oneself.

Books like Foxfire waste time that rightfully belongs to Shakespeare and Keats; they are the teaching materials of an educational system that has set its standards far, far too low.

That, above all, is the real scandal in Milton.

Copyright © 1997 by The Financial Post. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.