Think About It: Children’s books and social justice

Isn’t it preferable to try and emphasize those values that we all share, in the assumption that we still do share some values?

kids with books 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
kids with books 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I expect that I am not the only grandmother, who while reading classical fairy tales to her grandchildren, finds herself replacing certain words with others, or simply skipping altogether certain sentences, that are “politically incorrect” because they describe excessive cruelty and violence, prejudice and embarrassing stereotypes.
Quite honestly, I do not remember what I felt about these stories when I read them to my children nearly 40 years ago, but since the modern liberal definition of political correctness – which takes a pluralistic and tolerant view of race, gender, disability, ethnicity, sexual orientation, culture and world-views – entered our consciousnesses full force only in the 90s (when my own children were already in their 20s), I expect I simply didn’t give the matter much thought.
Of course, what constitutes “political correctness” is a function of one’s political, social, cultural and religious orientation. What is viewed as politically correct in Israel by secular liberal Jews is very different than what is considered politically correct by haredim, settlers (both religious and secular), or even secular Arabs.
For better or worse, the haredim are the group that is most particular in terms of what stories their children are exposed to, and this is part of the general principle that the individual should have very little choice in terms of how he lives, what he is exposed to, and what views he holds. The haredim in fact reject lock, stock and barrel, the “political correctness” of the secular liberals. Those who seem to ponder most about this issue are the secular liberals, and their conclusions are far from resolute.
Recently a list of 16 books for preschool children that may be viewed qualitative from a literary point of view, while reflecting values of social justice, was prepared by an NGO called “Bikurim” that utilizes literary tools in order to promote values of multiculturalism, otherness and dialogue in Israel, in cooperation with two other institutions. Within secular-liberal circles opinions differ as to whether such a list is desirable or not.
Those who favor the list point out that since according to certain studies children start formulating stereotypes and concepts regarding right and wrong at the age of three to four, it is important to consciously expose them to stories that strengthen desirable stereotypes and values, while avoiding, as far as possible, those that that do not.
This is, of course, easier said than done.
For example, I was quite surprised to find on the list of 16 books, a translation into Hebrew of Ferdinand the Bull by Munro Leaf, written in 1936. The story is about a bull called Ferdinand, who is picked up from the meadow where he grew up, and brought in a cart to Madrid in order to participate in a bullfight. But Ferdinand refuses to fight, and sits in the middle of the bullring, smelling the flowers on the hats of the ladies in the audience.
The story has a happy end, and Ferdinand is returned to his meadow. As a child, this was one of my favorite books, together with some books that today are considered terribly incorrect, such as Little Black Sambo. However, is Ferdinand the Bull really politically correct? For example, the background to the story is the institution of bullfighting – a controversial sport (or is it a form of art?) which is considered by animal rights supporters (and others) to be a “blood sport” that ought to be banned altogether. Besides, even though in the case of Ferdinand, participating in the fight would have certainly led to his death, the choice of passivity and avoidance of violence is not necessarily desirable, especially in a situation where one confronts a real danger to one’s existence, as Israel certainly does.
Not everyone in the secular liberal camp is happy about the list. Some feel that children ought to be exposed to all sorts of stories that form part of the cultural heritage of their parents and the state, be it part of the Jewish heritage (including the stories of the Bible that are not always easy to fathom); the European heritage; the Middle Eastern heritage; or the heritage of other regions in the world from which migrants (both Jewish and non-Jewish) came to Israel.
In all these heritages there are values that anyone can embrace with both hands, and others that can be rejected out of hand. Children must learn that life isn’t black and white, that the reality is varied and complicated, and that side by side with good and justice, there is also evil and injustice. In the final analysis, it is really up to the parents and educators to help them deal with reality and formulate their own world of values.
Others feel that it is dangerous to appoint commissars, with the power of censorship, to determine what is kosher and what is not. It is worse if the commissars are self-appointed. Though professional guidance can be helpful, and many parents might welcome such guidance, there is something very arbitrary and peremptory about a closed list.
A third group of doubters points out that the preparation of a list of books that is favored by one group will encourage other groups to publish rival lists that propagate totally different values, and this will merely increase the alienation and estrangement among the various groups in the society. Isn’t it preferable to try and emphasize those values that we all share, in the assumption that we still do share some values? In short, there are really no simple answers.
The writer teaches at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and was a Knesset employee for many years.