Praesidium

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Censorship in Education

Plato is often criticized as totalitarian for his willingness to censor vast tracts of Greek poetry, including Homer, in his ideal city. Of course, it is important that he proposed total censorship, rather than merely restriction of context. Nonetheless, when it comes to educational contexts, his proposals seem to differ from modern practice only in degree rather than kind.

I previously has other examples, such as fuss over Gollywogs in Enid Blighton, but this BBC story brought my attention to the recent removal of a Carol Ann Duffy poem about knife violence, 'An Education in Leisure' from GCSE anthologies. The Guardian's report reproduces the poem, while there's an analysis of it here.

The Guardian report quotes Michael Rosen, the children's laureate [not the ex-Oxford philosopher], as saying: "By this same logic we would be banning Romeo and Juliet. That's about a group of sexually attractive males strutting round the streets, getting off with girls and stabbing each other."

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7 Comments:

At 2:47 pm, Blogger Rob Jubb said...

The removal of the Duffy poem, although obviously on stupid grounds, is not merely different in degree from Plato's banning of all fiction from the Republic; it is different in kind. Plato's objection is that fiction is lying; the objection to the Duffy poem, idiotically, was that it somehow promoted violence. Clearly, on the Duffy-removing criterion, fiction which promotes morally desirable goals is acceptable or even desirable. Further, it is a criterion applied to a different field. Plato's criterion applied to art in general; the Duffy criterion applies to works to be used in a specific educational context - no-one was suggesting that the Duffy poem be removed from all books, or even from all books available to children. Plato, I maintain, is really totally in another league as far as insanely illiberal policy preferences go.

 
At 3:07 pm, Blogger Ben said...

Your second point is mentioned in my first para: "Of course, it is important that he proposed total censorship, rather than merely restriction of context. Nonetheless, when it comes to educational contexts, his proposals seem to differ from modern practice only in degree rather than kind." It holds true for this case, but I don't think you're right to suppose Plato in a league of his own - there are cases where people want total censorship.

As for your first, it's wrong. Plato's objection is not to lying or falsehood per se but its effects. Hence useful falsehoods, such as the Noble Lie, are permitted - in fact, education is to begin with false stories (Rep 377a).

 
At 2:53 pm, Blogger Rob Jubb said...

On the first point, a context restriction is different in kind and not just degree from a total ban. A ban on walking on the grass is not just different in degree from a ban on walking at all, and a ban on all forms of transport is different again from a ban on walking (although that's a bad example, because of the centrality of walking to moving about at all: think perhaps instead of the triad, offensive heckles, swearing, all speech). Plato is about as uniquely crazy about this is it's possible to be.

On the second point, you are the Plato scholar, but my recollection is not that the objection to fictionalism of fictions is to do with their effects in the strict sense. My recollection - and there is absolutely no way I'm checking this - is that misrepresentation of the world of the forms is the problem, something which the Noble Lie doesn't share, since although it's not strictly true, it does accurately reflect the underlying reality. So saying that lying is the problem is inaccurate, since lies can give enough of the truth to accurately represent the situation as it is; better to say misrepresentation. But I may be misremembering, or it may be that Plato is just flat-out contradictory.

 
At 3:13 pm, Blogger Ben said...

I agree with all you say about the difference between a total ban and context restriction; my point was that, while the original post only concerns an example of the latter, there are people other than Plato who want total bans on some things.

As for the misrepresentation point, it's true that Plato does say something about how he is most concerned with falsehood in the soul rather than falsehood in words (382b-c). This justifies the use of images that are not literally true but, nonetheless, convey something of the truth (e.g. the Sun allegory, 506e).

I'm not sure that the Noble Lie can be assimilated to this class; I think Plato is more concerned here with practical effects. Moreover, I think that from all Rep II-III says about educational censorship, it seems that Plato would want to censor bad stories about gods and heroes even if, per impossible, they were true.

Book X seems more concerned with the ontological/epistemological status of imitation, but here I think part of Plato's concern is that poets may appear rival sources of authority. Given comments here and elsewhere, it may be that poets sometimes speak truth (by divine inspiration), but they cannot give account of these things, so do not have knowledge. Thus, concern here seems not to be simply falsehood (although it is perhaps difficult to reconcile this with the earlier distinction between knowledge, opinion and ignorance - in which Plato suggests each is set over different objects, complicating the possibility of true belief).

 
At 3:28 pm, Blogger Ben said...

Further related discussion here:
http://bensaunders.blogspot.com/2008/09/censorship-in-society.html

 
At 3:40 pm, Blogger Rob Jubb said...

"I'm not sure that the Noble Lie can be assimilated to this class; I think Plato is more concerned here with practical effects. Moreover, I think that from all Rep II-III says about educational censorship, it seems that Plato would want to censor bad stories about gods and heroes even if, per impossible, they were true."

Things can be true whilst be misrepresentative. I stubbornly maintain this interpretation of Plato in the face of your obviously superior knowledge of the text: imagine me with my fingers in my ears going 'I can't hear you', basically.

On the banning things point, I maintain that banning all representative art is pretty uniquely crazy. The Abrahamic 'graven images' prohibition, for example, is much less restrictive. Totally banning the Duffy poem, whilst obviously crazy, would be much less totalitarian - I won't say less crazy because Plato's view at least as some consistency to it - than totally banning all poetry, painting, sculpture, fictional prose, non-martial music and so on. Totally banning, for example, all art produced on the 3rd Tuesday of the month would be a total ban of something, but a much less serious total ban than Plato's (in fact, I find the idea of such a ban endearingly quixoitic, if obviously actually doubtlessly impractical and dangerous in all kinds of ways, as opposed to simply horrifically totalitarian).

 
At 3:50 pm, Blogger Ben said...

"Things can be true whilst be misrepresentative."

I'm not sure quite what you mean by this. If the point is that something can be literally true whilst also misleading, then it's true. Plato's concern, it seems, is to lead people towards true rather than false beliefs; and he isn't particularly bothered whether he employs literal falsehoods (myths) in order to do so. It's possible we're talking past each other if we're using 'falsehood' differently to describe such practices (I say they're false, even if they lead people to true beliefs).

On the latter point, now I'm not quite sure what you were saying. I took your contrast to be between restricting the context of a particular thing (e.g. Duffy's poem) versus banning it outright. That, I agree, is a difference in kind - although my point was there are some things that some people, besides Plato, would want to ban outright today.

Now you point out that Plato goes further than most in outright banning (almost) all representational art. That's also true, but that I take to be a difference in degree (how much stuff is covered by the outright ban), rather than a difference in kind vis-a-vis someone who is willing to ban some stuff outright.

 

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