It’s ironic (or maybe just sad) that in this, the week when we remember the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and Dachau, today’s Washington Post included a story about how the Culpeper County, Virginia public schools decided to stop assigning the full version of The Diary of Anne Frank because “a parent complained that the book includes sexually explicit material and homosexual themes.” Children in the Culpeper schools will still be able to read an older, and presumably less-offensive-to-one-parent version of the book, but the full text of the book is now out of their history curriculum.
We could spend all day wringing our hands at the very idea that we’ve reached the stage where a public school district will change its curriculum because one parent objects to one assignment. But that’s a debate for other blogs.
Instead, I have to ask why it is that our children must be protected from the reality of the past?
Anne Frank’s story is well-known to almost everyone who grew up in the United States in the past several decades, because her Diary has been a standard assignment for students in the late middle or early high school years since at least the early 1970s. Hers is a story that is sad, glorious, poignant, raw, difficult, and in the end, tragic. But it’s not like the Holocaust was a happy story. And yet, in the midst of the mayhem of the period from 1933-1945, a young girl’s voice has spoken to generation after generation of school children because hers is an authentic voice, not one made up by writers in Hollywood or anywhere else. It is the reality of Anne Frank as a person–a teenager much like them except for the fact that she’s trapped in an attic and dies in a concentration camp–that speaks to young people.
And I’ve got news for the concerned parents of Culpeper County–your children are already having sex, so it’s not like the fact that Anne Frank mentions her vagina is going to result in a general moral decline among youth in the county. I make this statement not just based on the common sense assumption that teenagers are having sex in America, but based on data. According to the Virginia Division of Health Statistics, the number of teenage pregnancies in Culpeper County rose 20% from 2002 to 2008. Because the unedited version of Anne Frank’s Diary only recently made it into the curriculum–and then only for a short time–we can hardly blame Ms. Frank for the rapidly rising teen pregnancy rate in the county.
As I write this post my children are 10 and 13 and so of the age when they are confronting the bad side of humanity and the bad side of our past. My oldest has a close friend who can’t play outside because his neighborhood is too dangerous. My youngest has had to work his way through the sudden and unexplained death of a teammate’s mother last spring. They know life is hard and they know that humans can be cruel and capricious one day and loving and predictable the next.
Editing historical sources to sanitize them in ways that won’t offend one person or another does our children a grave disservice. As much as we’d like to keep them safe from the realities of life, they see through our attempts much more easily than we’d like to admit. Instead of hiding the reality of Anne Frank from them, we should teach them the reality, even the parts that might make us uncomfortable. How else are they going to learn?