On Censorship

Periodically a question of “censorship” falls into my lap…though I have a different label for it (which we’ll get to below). Sometimes it involves a choice of dramatic production (Urinetown? some provocative 10-minute play to show at assembly?), sometimes it comes from the creative writing of our students submitted to our literary magazine The Muse. One such example of the latter has just arisen, and I’d like to share the process by which these questions are addressed at the Academy.

One of our seniors recently submitted a brilliant short story to The Muse that had originally been written for a University creative writing course…and we had just had an ASM on a topic that the author felt would be relevant for our community.  The piece uses shifting points of view, following four different characters plus a semi-omniscient narrator. As far as quality goes, it’s an extraordinary piece of writing, well deserving of being published somewhere, maybe even in a national publication. So what’s the problem with printing in The Muse? Simply put, the story is about a school lock-down and shooting…

…which raises the question, should the Academy be publishing pieces on such distressing and provocative subjects? On one side, in addition to its high quality, the story addresses a real issue with which our students and our society are grappling, and BUA should never be an ostrich with our collective head in the sand, ignoring the real world. On the other side, first and foremost is the risk of causing deep distress at passages that include murder and the shooter’s suicide (though none of these is gratuitously written), followed by the fact that not all social issues need to be given a platform in a high school publication (especially ones that might have been over-saturated elsewhere). Yes, art does address provocative topics (sex, drugs, anorexia, death); that said, not all worthy topics need be aired in high school publications.

So how do we address this kind of question at the Academy? First, the faculty adviser of The Muse called it to my attention and we discussed it. Second, I asked my administrative team to debate it at our weekly group meeting. Next, we solicited the feedback of the student editors of The Muse, and perhaps of some other constituents at BUA (a sampling of parents and teachers). I have also talked with the author. And given the sensitive nature of this topic, we are consulting an outside expert to help make an informed decision that is in the best interest of our community.

There is a clear consensus on a few key questions and values:

  1. We want our students to stretch their limits in creative and constructive ways.
  2. Our students should also be encouraged to engage with real social ills, not just academic topics.
  3. If there is a factor making publication worrisome, might there be some educational framework to help describe the context surrounding the provocative piece (perhaps a preamble printed at its head)?
  4. While the “up side” of a well written piece is clear, we have a responsibility to ask ourselves what might be the “down sides” (we worry less here about a copy-cat student actually imitating this story, than about others finding it upsetting…though this latter factor should weigh less in the artistic realm, where emotions are intended to be moved).
  5. Are there better alternatives to publication (perhaps a public reading where the educational message will be sure to be heard by all present, rather than skipped in a printed preamble)?

Where will we land? I’m not sure yet. Just remember from past examples that we could go either way (so, for instance, we did produce Urinetown, but there have also been some 10-minute plays we cut). Ultimately, I will make the final decision, after vetting the pro’s and con’s widely among our community.

And you’ve been patient in waiting for the label I prefer to use over “censorship” in cases like this: it’s simply another form of “education.” We can all learn from each other – about our values, our hopes, our concerns, our cultural resilience – while addressing these good tough questions. So I encourage our students to write away, and we’ll take each case on its own merits. Might we err sometimes (permitting some examples we later regret; denying others we might have let pass)? Absolutely! But it’s the process by which we get there, not the decisions themselves, which defines us at the Academy. And that definition is pretty amazing!

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School