Sunday, January 31, 2010

Banned DICTIONARY!! Returned to Shelves

If you look up the word i-d-i-o-t-i-c you will find a definition of a California school district for banning Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary from school shelves, calling it inappropriate for children to read.

Thankfully, the dictionaries were returned Tuesday in the Menifee Union School District. Betti Cadmus told the media that "the dictionaries will be back in the classrooms in a matter of hours."

Ironically, this comes on the very day that world mourned the loss of Jerome David “J.D.” Salinger, 91, the brilliant author who wrote about teenage angst and coming of age in the 1951 iconic classic Catcher in the Rye. His novel was also banned by many libraries for its realistic language, deemed inappropriate for children to read.

The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary would be returned to fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms at Oak Meadows Elementary School, a committee of Menifee Union School District parents, teachers and administrators decided Tuesday.

An alternate dictionary will also be placed in classrooms, and parents will have the option of choosing the dictionary their child can use, Superintendent Linda Callaway said in a statement at a school board meeting later that day.

School officials pulled the Merriam-Webster dictionaries the week before after an Oak Meadows parent complained about a child stumbling across definitions for "oral sex."

That action triggered worldwide media coverage, much of it very critical of the school district, and the U.S. for yet another classic example of hypocrisy.

“Question of the day: in which country has the dictionary just been banned for the danger it poses to the morals of the young?” asks Oliver Marre in a column in today’s Telegraph in the U.K. “The answer, which was a surprise to me but unfortunately plays into the hands of those lit snobs who choose to overlook many of last century’s best writers and paint the country as a nation of the illiterate and the stupid, is America.”

The decision to offer both dictionaries was made by a committee of about a dozen school administrators, teachers and parents. School board policy calls for a committee to be formed when classroom materials are challenged. The committee is required to determine whether the “questionable material” supports the curriculum, is educationally appropriate and is suitable for the age level of the students.

Callaway read its recommendation at the school board meeting, but the statement did go into detail about how the committee came to its decision, and she did not take questions from the floor.

"I just want to thank those who put in the time to resolve this as quickly as they did," school board President Rita Peters said after Callaway's announcement, an obvious attempt to quell the controversy.

Parents at Oak Meadows, which is in Murrieta, Calif., will be mailed a letter about the two dictionaries, Callaway said. Parents who do not want their child using the Merriam-Webster can sign a form at the bottom of the letter and return it to the school.

Interestingly, the Merriam-Webster dictionary was in use only at Oak Meadows. The alternate is a McGraw-Hill student dictionary and is already in classrooms, she said.

The Merriam-Webster Collegiate dictionaries were purchased several years ago to allow advanced readers in the fourth and fifth grades to use them.

The controversy began when a student got lost somewhere between "oralism" and "orang" and found a rather recent entry to the lexicon: "oral sex."

A parent complained about a child finding the definition as "oral stimulation of the genitals," prompting the committee of principals, teachers and parents to pore over the book and determine whether it is fit for young eyes.

Obviously, book-banning in itself is nothing new. Books are banned for any number of reasons – sometimes they are burned for good measure just to make sure they don't come back – but it is hard to recall a case in North America where the offending tome has been a dictionary!

My views pretty much echo Marre’s, so here’s his excellent column in total:

“Question of the day: in which country has the dictionary just been banned for the danger it poses to the morals of the young?

The answer, which was a surprise to me but unfortunately plays into the hands of those lit snobs who choose to overlook many of last century’s best writers and paint the country as a nation of the illiterate and the stupid, is America.

Schools in southern California have banned the hugely respected Merriam Webster 10th edition because of its definition of “oral sex,” branded “sexually graphic” and “not age appropriate.”

On hearing this, I couldn’t held but wonder what unnecessary form of words the dictionary’s compilers had chosen.

Personally, I am not much for banning books. Read and let read, I say. And if you must burn a book occasionally, please do it on the basis of quality, not morality. Once you start down the route of censorship, it becomes difficult to stop.

There is, however, a measure of sense in individual schools (rather than a blanket, centrally imposed ban) steering pupils away from really unsuitable books and, on those grounds, I rather assumed that banning a book – especially a dictionary – suggested that the description supplied for this adult activity must have been very smutty (initially penned in jest and included in error, perhaps)…

In fact, they went for this: “Oral stimulation of the genitals.”

I am tempted to ask anyone with a less offensive definition to leave it in the Comments below, because I don’t think I can come up with one. It is also, and surely this is of the essence considering we are considering a dictionary here, accurate.

If schoolchildren have been giggling about this, it isn’t because of the definition: it is because some bright spark found the word “sex” in the first place. It is no different from the laughter in Biology classes when “that page” of the text book is reached.

When you consider what the children of south California can find in their science books and elsewhere (the web?), this ban really does seem to be among the most moronic pieces of news of the year so far. It is also a little alarming.”

I , too, find this whole thing pretty frightening. In a free society, such blatant censorship is an affront to the country’s ideals. It is the free exchange of information and knowledge that is at the basis of any democracy. Dictionaries are neutral, providing factual definitions to words and concepts – even sex.

If parents are offended by those facts, they need to look at their own sexual views, not demonize a book and further stigmatize the subject. There is no way to shield children from life and sex is part of life.

The best any parent can do is educate their children about the risks, but ensure they have the actual facts. I have a friend who learned about sex at 18 only through dictionaries because her parents had steadfastly refused to talk about it and she was embarrassed to talk to her friends. Thanks the Gods that the dictionary was there before she acted! If not, she could very easily have ended up pregnant, or contracted an STD.

I would also like to thank Surviving Survial for pointing this story out to me.

— The Curator


  1. Curator,

    I remember, with great fondness, growing up in a home where my habit of reading for the sole purpose of learning new things was not only allowed but encouraged. This habit started at a young age. I am not sure how young, but it was certainly well established by eight or nine. Among the materials from which I would randomly select topics were included an unabridged English language dictionary, a set of “Collier's Encyclopedia”, and even my father’s copy of Grey’s Anatomy (for you less age challenged out there I do not mean the TV show, but rather the true classic “Anatomy of the Human Body” by Henry Grey). My habit for learning was voracious and all encompassing. It certainly included topics on human physical and mental interaction (at least as much was known and included in texts in the 1950s and early 1960s).

    It is incomprehensible to me that parents feel they must hide life and the world from their children. We are human. Denying this will not change the facts. It will only lead to confused adults who grow up not understanding why they are what they are.

    As always, love reading your comments,
    Is Still Here

  2. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I, too, grew up with reading, which was my passport to new worlds, as well as information about this one. Children are curious, they need to be fed more than food. Their creative abilities should be nurtured, too, and reading does that.

    In this day and age, it remains deeply shocking to me that sexual information, as in factual information, causes adults so much fear. You're absolutely right -- that kind of fear transmitted to kids makes them messed up as adults. Parents should guide their children when it comes to sex, teaching them about love, trust, etc., not just the physical act. If they do that, and don't behave like sex is something to be ashamed of, we'd be a much happier, healthier country.

    As always, thanks for your comments.