Summer Porn Reading Lists (Part 4): Choosing and Using Materials

For starters, let me be clear:  there is almost never a true educational purpose (at least in elementary or secondary school, or in undergraduate higher education) to assign actual pornography to an entire class as part of a required curriculum. If either Fun Home or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks truly met any reasonable person’s description of pornography, parents and/or students would have grounds for complaint.  Appropriate remedies could range from removing the offending materials to sanctions (up to and including dismissal) of instructors requiring students to read or view sexually explicit materials produced with the intent to arouse desire to participate in the activities depicted.

However, neither of these books meets this standard.  Students may find the very brief and very sparse depictions of lesbian activity offensive, but the bulk of Fun Home is not comic-book erotica. Although the genre is not to my taste, Alison Bechdel’s “family tragicomic” touches on a wider range of topics than sexual activity between two women, and has some instructional merit.  (I am still not sure it is the best way to introduce these themes, I am not sure it is necessary for students to arrive for their first year at a prestigious university having read it–and I am very sure if it is necessary at all, it should be done in a different setting than a “summer assignment”.)  Rebecca Skloot’s work cannot be, by any intelligent reader, understood as pornography.  Again, whether it should be “summer reading”, rather than something assigned during the academic session, is another set of questions.

However, we cannot escape the fact that certain very worthy books, movies, paintings, and photographs contain written, spoken, or pictorial descriptions of sexual organs and activities.  Some people may be aroused by them.  This does not, however, make them “pornographic”.  Medieval Christian mysticism often refers to the soul’s “union with God” in exceptionally erotic terms; I refer you to Teresa of Avila as an example. Teresa is closer to “pornography” than either Bechdel or Skloot, largely because her entire purpose in writing was to create in others the desire to experience the fulfillment she achieved, and gives clear directions concerning how to find this pleasure for oneself. The most famous image of Teresa–Bernini’s sculpture–clearly depicts this nun in a state of ecstasy bordering on orgasm.  And yet, she is one of the few women who has been recognized as a Doctor of the Church.

So much for pornography.

Literature with graphic descriptions, even images, of the human body, dealing with “adult” themes such as sexuality, illness, death, racism, ethics or the lack thereof, has an important place in educating teens and young adults. Chosen carefully, and taught appropriately, such work helps develop skills in critical thought, decision making, and forms character, whereas “protecting” adolescents and young adults from these themes does not.  But note my words:  carefulappropriate, adolescent and young adults.  Of course, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks does not belong in an elementary or middle school curriculum.  But by the mid-teens, the average student should be able to grapple with the issues.

How do we choose things, not because of, but in spite of, potential controversy or the objection of a parent on the grounds of “pornography”?  The exact same way good educators choose any materials.  Not because “I loved this book”.  Not because it might have shock value.  Not because it represents the instructor’s particular point of view at the cost of excluding other ideas.

When I designed a program for training Christian ministers which was required by our denomination to have a university validation, I learned about selecting materials and setting assessments.  For every assigned book or article (not “recommended” reading, but required), each instructor had to be able to justify the purpose of that particular reading.  What did it illustrate?  Why was it the best available way to present it?  What other materials were considered? What counter-balances to the views presented are also assigned?  How will it be treated in the classroom (lecture, group discussion, seminar)?  If you take this out of the curriculum, what will suffer?   How does this help form the foundation for the learning to follow?

And because every required assignment had to be assessed in some way, further questions followed.  How will adequate comprehension be assessed? What alternative assessment methods are available if needed?  Are their clear and accessible criteria for the particular kind of assessment being applied to this assignment (written work, oral presentation)? How can we make sure these assessments are made fairly, and properly archived in the event they are contested in the future? What are the penalties for failure to complete the assignment, and are those penalties available to the student prior to the assignment due date?

These are the discussions which must happen before any book, poem, play, painting, photograph, video, which is required of all students, can be admitted.  They took place, at least for my organization, in lengthy, often painful and contentious meetings.  Materials were reviewed carefully by each instructor before the team decided the curriculum, after which it was presented to the validating panel. We raised objections to each others’ choices, and we defended our own.  We produced the most comprehensive program of study possible, given the inevitable constraints any educational body faces–time, personnel, finances.

No assignment gets included on a whim.  Parents and students need to understand this.  They may not “like” everything they or their children are required to read.  But if they ask questions, rather than simply make knee-jerk assumptions and accusations, they will (one hopes) realize the purpose behind each assignment.  It is there to develop skills, expand knowledge, form the basis for future inquiry and learning.

If you object to an assignment, for your child or yourself, don’t just do what those who raised the alarmist (and false) cry of “Pornography!” did.  Ask those who made the decision to justify their inclusion of those works you find objectionable.  They will, in all likelihood, be able to defend their choices on rational grounds.

If that can happen–or even if a conversation occurs–in all likelihood, the charge of “pornography” is unjustified.  Because pornography has, at most, a vanishingly small place in any educational program.

Most importantly, however:  If a book is significant enough to require all students to read it, it belongs in the curriculum.  It deserves space in classroom discussions, during which students can raise questions and concerns in the company of an experienced and informed teacher.  If it must be read, then the value a student derives from it should be assessed–through an exam, an essay, an oral presentation, or a creative arts project on the issues it raises.

None of that can happen in a “summer reading list” assignment. Those lists should be used for the maintenance of reading habits and skills acquired in earlier phases of the educational process, with the intention that students have not lost ground over the summer break.

A summer reading list is no place for something essential to the educational process, and essential reading should not be done during the summer break.

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