It seems every few years, school boards somewhere in Canada are faced with decisions pertaining to curriculum design and age-appropriate learning. This year, the controversy centres on the Deborah Ellis book Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak -- a collection of interviews she conducted with a number of youth during her travels to Israel. Without question, the book is at once provocative and disturbing and, in the right hands and with the right contextual support, a potentially useful tool for learning. It also seems obvious that in most circumstances, school board professionals should have the last word about when and how to put learning tools in the hands of children. Sadly, with this controversy, otherwise well-meaning adults have put their agenda and vision ahead of the professionals charged with this work.
It was the considered opinion of the Canadian Jewish Congress, an organization with a long history of dealing with racism and discrimination, that Three Wishes is a book best read, in a school system, by children older than those targeted by the Silver Birch independent reading program, which promotes a list of books to children in Grades 4 to 6. Indeed, lost in the melee of hyperbole and passionate argumentation is the very fact that the book's publisher suggests, on the back cover, that it is best suited for children in Grades 6 and up. Why, then, has the CJC been labelled a censor and book-banner? The answer, it seems, would have more to do with organizational politics than with what is in the best interests of children.
In both the print and electronic media over recent weeks, the Ontario Library Association (OLA) has been front and centre as the assumed protector of children's literature. And yet, a number of school boards in the province, including its largest and most diverse, the Toronto District School Board, courageously decided that Three Wishes is best read by students in older elementary grades, knowing full well that a decision running contrary to the position of the OLA might engender controversy. Surely, experts whose sole job it is to assess literature and design curriculum for school boards are best positioned to make such decisions. But this has not stopped the rhetoric.
In 1988, the CJC was involved in a similar situation. At the time, following the teaching of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in Grades 9 and 10 in Ontario, young Jewish children were subjected to anti-Semitic taunts. At that time, the CJC asked school boards to consider moving the play from the junior high-school grades to the senior high-school grades. As in the current debate, well-meaning people also raised the spectre of censorship and book-banning. Nonetheless, CJC stayed the course. We worked with school boards, provided material on anti-Semitism and anti-racism, and helped them use The Merchant of Venice as a tool to teach tolerance, especially in the older grades, where students were best prepared to understand context and concepts. Today, most school boards across the country have recognized Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice is best taught, if at all, in the senior grades.
Three Wishes should not be censored or banned. Those who have used this taunt as a means by which to intimidate school boards are doing everyone a disservice. Indeed, stifling any person or organization's right to question or ask for a review of materials used in schools is, itself, a form of censorship. With Three Wishes, the best society can ask is for educators to assess the material, place it in an appropriate age group and provide teaching modules to help young people understand the complexity of Middle East politics.
It is the CJC's hope that school boards across the province will follow the example set in Toronto and other communities and allow for such controversial literature to be used with wisdom and sensitivity as vehicles for understanding, rather than a tool to divide. Perhaps it is time for well-meaning adults to take a step back and let the professionals do their jobs.
Bernie M. Farber is chief executive officer of the Canadian Jewish Congress.Report Typo/Error