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Editorial: Another Letter to the First Librarian

Dear Mrs. Bush:

This is the second time we’ve corresponded via this page; my last letter (see “The Truth’s Superb Surprise,” March/April 2003) concerned our mutual love of poetry, and I hope you’ll be pleased to hear that our next issue is a special one devoted to that genre, with contributions from some of our most highly esteemed poets for children. I’ll be sure to send you a copy.

Now, though, I’m writing to see if you might share your thoughts regarding evolution. Feel free to tell me to mind my own business: I know that yours is not an elected position, and messing about in political hot-button areas has gotten more than one First Lady in trouble. But in my heart I confess to thinking of you more as First Librarian than as First Lady, and I’m hoping you will help us out. I want you to tell the parents and teachers in this country why children need to understand Darwin’s theory of the origin of species.

There are some excellent children’s books that can help them out — Steve Jenkins’s Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution (Houghton), for one. And Peter Sis’s The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin (Foster/Farrar) is a mind-expanding exploration of how Darwin came to think the way he did.

I know you’re thinking, Why me, Lord? It’s because you are the best person for the job. I have been attending the Texas Library Association conference for the past five years and have learned that Texas school and children’s librarians are among the smartest, hardest working, and most charismatic library workers on the planet. Now we’ve got one in the White House. If you acknowledge that Darwin might have been on to something, people will listen.

But maybe you believe that education, like marriage, should be left to the states. Maybe you believe it’s reasonable that teachers should be presenting theories of evolution and “intelligent design” side by side. Perhaps you think it’s okay for parents to remove their children from classes in which they will be presented with information that contradicts what the parent believes is true.

Well, hear me out. While I also support state control of public education, I believe that each state has a responsibility to make sure its students are prepared for a life that will extend beyond any political borders, not to mention giving them an education that will allow them entrance to any college or career as good as their talent and diligence will allow. And while many topics of student inquiry can only benefit from educated debate, others (including, to my everlasting sadness, long division) simply need to be mastered. Here’s a formula I do understand: to dilute science with religion only waters down both.

Asking you to espouse that schools should teach students facts and ideas that may be contrary to those they learn at home is, I recognize, a political nonstarter no matter which party is in the White House. But it is essential. Education — reading, too — is not about making people comfortable, about confirming what one already believes to be true. While I have my own questions about the educational merit of a teacher assigning Harry Potter as classroom reading (short version: why bother?), to excuse a child from participating in the lesson on the grounds of a religious objection teaches him or her a far worse lesson than any encounter with a fictional wizard ever could. It teaches children that they only need to learn what their parents want them to know. But God willing, children grow up. They leave their homes and schools (and often, churches). The entire point of home and school, in fact, is to prepare them for this departure. Their beliefs (and their Beliefs) will be challenged, and confirmed, and changed — by other people, by the world around them, by the books they read and movies they see, and (I believe) by God. The more they know, the better chance they have. Covering students’ eyes and ears to the things we don’t want them to see or hear does not make those things any less true. Perhaps, Mrs. Bush, you could paraphrase a predecessor of yours and Just Say Know.

With all best wishes,

Roger Sutton

From the March/April 2005 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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