This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, January 31, 1996

January 31, 1996 - R-rated Videos in Schools

I read with interest an article in the January 26, 1996 Rocky Mountain News about a teacher who wanted to show an R-rated video to his high school class.

The issue is not new. It has been raised by parents in Adams County, Jefferson County, and is under consideration right now in Douglas County.

Because movie ratings have come to be regarded as a culturally- sanctioned label -- something like the nutritional content labels on canned goods -- some parents believe anything beyond a PG rating should be absolutely forbidden in our public schools. If a national movie industry standard states that something isn't appropriate for a particular age group, why not respect it?

Of course, even an R-rated movie may be viewed by an teenager -- or an infant, for that matter. All that's required is that the parent or guardian give permission.

But the topic raises at least two interesting questions.

First, can a movie of disturbing content -- language, sexual behavior, violence -- ever be appropriate for a classroom? Second (and this is always the trick question), who decides?

First question: imagine a class covering World War II. To put a sharper edge on this, imagine a school where there is a trend toward anti-Semitism, and a recurrent claim that the Holocaust was a hoax. A viewing and discussion of "Schindler's List" might make some sense. In other words, it could have direct bearing on the curriculum of the school, not to mention its intellectual environment generally.

"Schindler's List" is R-rated.

Yet if an R-rated movie might sometimes be appropriate, then the significant issue here isn't the rating at all -- it's the "appropriateness." To put it another way, ratings of Hollywood movies have little to do with either the theme or the quality of the product. Further, they have nothing at all to do with local standards, or the appropriateness of the material for a specific classroom, subject, or student.

So let's tackle the second question: who decides what is appropriate? One idea is that local communities should simply abide by national standards -- in this case, the standards adopted by some unknown Hollywood types.

Unfortunately, there are no agreed upon national standards for either curriculum or teaching materials. In Colorado, curriculum is the broad responsibility of the local school board; in practical terms, it is the individual responsibility of the specific teacher. This is what some people see as the strength of public education in America: local control. The local Board sets content; local teachers deliver it.

Clearly, it doesn't make sense for the Board to dictate teaching methodology, any more than a layman should tell a doctor which tools to use for an appendectomy. (On the other hand, both the patient and the student should be able to demonstrate that the operation was a success. That's just simple accountability -- for Board and teacher alike.)

But back to R-rated movies, or indeed, commercial movies of any kind in the classroom.

It's true that Hollywood isn't the most reliable interpreter of history.

On the other hand, neither are our textbooks. As two recent and thought-provoking books have argued (What Johnny Shouldn't Read, and Lies My Teacher Told Me, both available from the Douglas Public Library District), American textbook publishers deal with controversy by exclusion. That is, if somebody objects to something, it doesn't get corrected, or expanded in the next edition. It gets left out.

Hollywood may be justly accused of over-dramatizing or distorting history. But our textbooks must answer the charge of suppressing the facts altogether.

If history isn't Hollywood, neither is it G-rated. History is messy. War, for instance, is full of excessive violence, a large dose of nasty language, and (based on my conversations with veterans) even a surprising amount of sex. Just how cleaned up should we make these things for our children? If we do sanitize the presentation to a rating of "G," are we still teaching history?

Movies are such a popular art form precisely because they have the ability to do what many textbooks fail to do: emotionally engage the student, make real and tangible what might otherwise be a dry recitation of facts.

It could be that sometimes -- if the teacher judges that it's appropriate, and the parents sign off -- a movie could make the difference between a good educational experience, and a great one.

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