This is my inaugural blog, so I'd like to write something profound and memorable. Instead, I'll probably ramble a bit. But I guess that's what blogs are for . . .
I do have a topic. But I almost got sidetracked by the Blogger profile page I filled out this weekend. One of the questions was about my astrological sign, which struck me as ironic (we're talking about non-fiction, right?). I know, it's all in good fun and I should just lighten up. But still.
If I didn't have the suspicion that more adults in the U.S. can name the signs of the zodiac than the names and order of the planets I'd be more amused. This is pure speculation, unsupported by any data, but we've seen enough depressing surveys about what percentage of people believe the sun orbits the earth or that humans and dinosaurs co-existed — 18% and 63% , respectively, in recent polls — that I believe pessimism about our astronomical knowledge is not unwarranted. Interestingly (and encouragingly?) more children probably get the planet question correct, since they've just made a paper mache model of Saturn. Another poll found that 40% of our citizens believe astrology is scientifically valid. And most astoundingly, 66% (2007 Gallup poll) agree with the statement "God created human beings pretty much in their present form within the last 10,000 years."
This segues into my original topic — censorship. Specifically, self-censorship. Recently, my frequent co-author Robin Page and I made a presentation at a local school. It was part of an all-day workshop in which we talked about making books, research, the writing process, and so on. It was a lovely school. The kids were bright and interested, and the teachers were clearly passionate about education. It's a school with no religious affiliation in one of the most liberal small cities in the country (Boulder, CO), with a mission statement affirming a commitment to high academic standards in language arts and the sciences. As we were discussing (via email) what books the school would have on hand for the parents to buy and Robin and me to sign, one of the administrators mentioned that they'd have all my books from the past few years except for Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution. There was a concern that some parents might take offense. I wrote back expressing surprise and disappointment, and they graciously changed their mind and included the book. I signed quite a few copies, apparently without any drama.
The exchange made me realize, however, how easy it is for all of us who are in the business of teaching kids about the way the world actually works to avoid subjects or language, however accurate, that might make our lives more complicated. I'm not advocating confrontation, since I don't think that helps. It's like yelling at your teenager — once you go there, it's no longer about their behavior, it's about the fact that they are being attacked. Lose lose.
But I think we have to be vigilant about not distorting reality by omission. Outright censorship is easy to recognize and resist — banned books are celebrated, and probably more widely read than they would be otherwise. It's the more subtle forms of censorship that are really insidious. When I watched March of the Penguins a few years ago, I was struck by the complete absence of the word 'evolution,' even though the subject begged for it's inclusion (how did those birds adapt themselves to such an environment?). It was clearly a marketing decision, and probably financially acute, but it was also sad. Such a beautiful example of natural selection, and such a great opportunity to introduce children one of the most elegant (and accurate) theories in all of science.
I'll try to lighten up next time. And, with luck and persistence, maybe I'll figure out how to get images to go where I want them to go (suggestions welcome).