More on Censorship and "Controversy"

OPB Radio’s “Think Out Loud” just aired an hour of conversation on censorship in Oregon in a show titled “Not At School.” If you missed it, the broadcast will be repeated tonight at 9:00 pm, and you can also download it or stream it on your computer.

The star of the show, and my newest hero, is Kevin Cahill, the La Grande teacher who selected and is directing the production of Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.” As reported earlier here (and around the world) the play riled one parent enough that she gathered 137 signatures on a petition to ban its production at the high school.

If I were a parent of a high school student in La Grande, I would be delighted for my kid to be in one of Mr. Cahill’s classes. Here’s one of his smart, smart comments:

Controversy is an essential element to education, because all ‘controversy’ really means is the presence of rival claims. The presence of rival claims, and what that is is a recipe for conversation, for discussion and for profitable exchange of ideas.

People have somehow associated the idea of controversy with something fearsome to be avoided at all costs. But it’s actually very near the heart and soul of what constitutes intellectual inquiry--what prepares our kids when they graduate and get out there and wrestle with the marketplace of ideas.

Readers would do well to visit Mr. Cahill's blog, Freehand...Hold On...Reach.


cynseattle said...

Here's a sentence I rarely say (because it rarely comes up): I am a graduate of La Grande High School. Egads... My family moved to La Grande from Southern California when I was in high school, and I did sort of think I'd landed on the moon. But the fascinating thing, in light of this story, is how much the pendulum truly does swing. I was at LHS in the 70s, and despite it being an even smaller town then (not by much), and also one with a large conservative population, I think the school was less dominated by those forces. Much like Kevin Cahill (hmmm, I think I know him), we had some smart, adventurous faculty. And we had a principal who (despite being a well respected Mormon leader in town) backed his staff in their choices. When we read Shakespeare's "Macbeth" in our AP English class, my teacher took us over to the college to see a screening of Polanski's "Macbeth." Not for the close minded... and she also showed us a spoof of an Ingmar Bergman film called "Da Dove," or something like that ("The Dove"). Now why she thought a bunch of kids at LHS would understand a spoof of Bergman...brave woman. It does seem that schools are so hamstrung these days by superintendents and boards who are cowed by the loudest parents in the room, at the expense of intellectual expansiveness. A shame, because it is in just such towns as La Grande that the high school has the opportunity to be a leader in those areas. There is no professional theater; no professional orchestra; no professional dance. It is the high school, and the college, that the town turns to for cultural expeience. What a shame that a few strident voices are allowed to diminish that role.

Nathan Baker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nathan Baker said...

I really liked that statement by Mr. Cahill that "all 'controversy' really means is the presence of rival claims." I was listening to the show when he said that, and it has stuck with me enough that here I am a few days later reading and responding to this blog post. It's clear to me that Mr. Cahill's number one goal is for students (and the public at large) to be exposed to many different viewpoints and scenarios, so they can decide for themselves what to take away from it all.

MightyToyCannon said...

Cynseattle, thanks for the perspective of a La Grande HS graduate from back in old-timey-time. I also had the good fortune to be taught by high school teachers who weren't afraid of letting us think and exposing us to ideas. It's my unverified contention that most folks, when asked what influenced the direction of their lives, will credit either great teachers or arts experiences. (Some will give credit to their parents, sports or religion).

Nathan, thanks for commenting. Mr. Cahill's definition of "controversy" so caught my attention I immediately searched for the quote so I could write it down.

Anonymous said...

cynseattle-I had a teacher in high school who showed me "De Duva", the Bergman film. It's brilliant.

This makes me think of this lecture that a professor here at BYU gave about "wholesome entertainment". (Whaddayaknow? There are really two sides to BYU--the safe, non-controversial side and the don't-take-the-Koolaid side.) Many (if not most) people in the Mormon community don't watch R-rated movies as a rule because they don't believe in taking part in objectionable things. However, this professor asserted that controversy is like vitamins. It challenges you and is essential for growth and development. It shouldn't be treated as a problem until it becomes too much. Too many vitamins can poison you. Then again, no vitamins at all leaves you stunted and weak. He pointed out that it's ironic that people will use the term "wholesome entertainment" to describe things that don't challenge your thoughts and beliefs. So censorship, then, not only becomes an overly-protective thing to do, but it's downright irresponsible.

MightyToyCannon said...


Rather than (or in addition to) a vitamin, I like the idea of controversy being the "fiber" part of a wholesome, nutritious education. It's important to have a little roughage in the diet to keep the ideas flowing properly ... the metaphor can go on from there.