April 01, 2023

This is not the Iowa I know and love

Pat Shipley

Iowa historically valued education. Iowa valued books and curriculum that prepared students to think beyond the protection of the immediate family. Iowa trusted educators and school boards to make decisions about curriculum and books in school libraries. Iowa parents valued the idea that public education could provide a global perspective through reading, discussion, and questioning.

While in elementary school, “Sally, Dick and Jane” was used to teach reading. Unfortunately for little girls, boys were leaders and girls followed. Girls were wives, nurses or teachers. Boys were professionals, ran businesses, and made decisions. Families were happy with a father who went to work in a tie, the mother stayed at home wearing an apron and pearls doing “women’s work,” and had two children, always a boy and a girl. It didn’t look like my family. My mom always worked. My dad went to work as a mechanic and returned home dirty and tired. My family wasn’t always happy. I remember wondering why little girls weren’t running businesses and making decisions. The library contained books about other types of families and a world where little girls could achieve dreams.

We read Shakespeare. Freshmen read “Romeo and Juliet,” a story about teenage lovers, feuding families, sword fights, violence, name-calling and a double suicide at the tragic end. Sophomores read “Twelfth Night,” a comedy of mistaken identity and cross-dressing heroines. What? Juniors and seniors read “Macbeth” and “Hamlet,” stories of murder, mental illness, evil deeds committed to gain power and advancement, witchcraft, violence, death, lust, murder, possible incest. Shakespeare’s plays were in the curriculum. Would Shakespeare be removed from schools in today’s Iowa because of content?

Shakespeare wrote for the common person having human experiences. I learned that in Shakespeare’s England, female characters were played by men. Was that a drag show? I didn’t always understand the meaning of the Bard’s “naughty” words taken out of context, but learned that human behavior didn’t change much over time.

We read stories about poverty, workers and inequity in “Grapes of Wrath.” Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” taught about overcoming poor ancestry and achievement. “The Scarlet Letter,” a story about adultery, hypocrisy and shame resulted in strength and independence. Reading taught students about life that was beyond what we experienced personally or might affirmed our questions.

Parents valued the knowledge of those making educational decisions. Parents didn’t challenge the racy, violent or sensitive content of Shakespeare, Hemingway, Hawthorne, Dickens or other authors. Topics in books and curriculum opened our minds to a world beyond small town Iowa. Parents valued expanding our world perspective not controlling knowledge.

Fast-forward to today. Parents pack board meetings and legislative hearings to protest books that are only available on a library shelf and not curriculum. Parents want to keep students from reading and learning about others having a different life experience. Students aren’t forced to read them. Families may not financially be able to buy the books. The library is the only option.

Individual parents can restrict books made available to their own child if it’s objectionable. However, one parent or a group of parents does not have the right to determine or control what is available for someone else’s child.

Legislators aren’t elected to be state-wide moral police. Locally elected school boards know the community they represent and take that responsibility seriously. At a recent forum legislators said there wasn’t legislation to ban books. Statewide “book removal” legislation has been proposed in Iowa. If adopted, a book removed from one school library may result in removal from all school libraries. That’s book banning no matter how legislators try to spin it. That isn’t the Iowa I know and love.

A famous quote from “Romeo and Juliet” is: “What is in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” What does that mean? It means the name of something does not affect what it is. Legislators can call it a statewide, uniform “book removal” procedure. In practice it’s a process to ban books for all Iowa students, because a minority of people somewhere in the state wants the removal. Iowans don’t value that. We value education and those who teach.