Sunday, November 15, 2009

Censorship in schools

I had an interesting conversation at dinner on Friday night that turned to the topic of censorship in schools. Unfortunately, the conversation was cut short by a need to get home to our sick daughter, so I thought that I would explore the issue a little bit here.

First, I have to say that in general I am against censorship. From a moral viewpoint, I feel that governments should not be allowed to block access to information. From a practical viewpoint, censorship almost never works in the long run, and mostly serves to draw attention to the information being censored. With the flattening world and the proliferation of information technologies, censorship is becoming even more difficult.

Now, the question arises of whether censorship of a mild kind can or should be practised in schools. From a legal perspective, students are mostly under the age of 18 and so are not considered full citizens under the law. As well, teachers and schools have de facto parental roles for the students and so can reasonably be allowed control over what the students may see and hear. From a moral perspective it makes sense to protect students, younger students especially, from information and images that they can not be expected to understand or process in a useful way. Various kinds of propaganda, pornography, and advertising come to mind (although sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between those three). From an educational perspective it seems reasonable to try and limit distractions so that students are more likely to concentrate on learning.

So, having said that some censorship is reasonable, the million dollar question is "how much?". This is where my answers get a lot fuzzier. When I am teaching, I feel that I have a legitimate role in asking students to avoid distractions when they are meant to be learning. As such, listening to iPods during a lesson, texting on cell phones instead of working, playing computer games instead of doing research are all activities that I feel I can rightfully work to curtail. Still, I do not believe that it is useful for me to try to ban iPods, cell phones, and laptops from the classroom because these can all be tools for learning when used properly.

A trickier question is whether school boards should prevent YouTube, Facebook, and similar web sites from being viewed from school computers. Ideally, I feel that those sites should not be blocked. But, from a practical point of view as a teacher, I know that trying to police computer use if everybody can be checking their Facebook page and watching the latest viral YouTube video would be close to insane. I wonder if it is feasible to block access to only those students who have abused it. That would be a good solution, in my opinion.

Censorship and schools is an area where there are no easy answers. I can only hope that as technology evolves schools can stay on the side of using technology to teach, rather than trying to ban technology as a distraction.

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