Banned Books Awareness: Thomas Jefferson

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He was the third President of the United States, the most intellectual figure in shaping America’s early history, and a voice of reason in his own time as well as today.

Jefferson was an avid reader, stating, “I can not live without books.” He felt that the reading of books was key to a proper education, and that educating people was vital to an organized society. As such, he believed that schools should be paid for by the general public so that the less wealthy could be educated as well.

He wanted to found an institution of higher learning free of church influences, where students could specialize in areas not offered at other universities. So, in 1825, he opened the University of Virginia. It was the first university to offer a full schedule of elective courses to its students, and, unlike most universities up to its time, was centered around a library rather than a church.

In fact, no campus chapel was included in Jefferson’s original plans. Throughout his life Jefferson was extremely fascinated by theology, biblical study, and morality, but, like many other Founding Fathers, Jefferson was a Deist, and as such was fervently opposed to institutionalized religion.

The thought is enough to imagine him rolling in his grave, but, like fellow Founding Father, Thomas Paine, he found himself at the center of censorship efforts by the Texas State Board of Education in 2010.

In March, 2010, the TSBE decided to remove Thomas Jefferson from American history, blatantly rewrite American history in general, and censor scientific principles from all public schools in an effort to combat the impartiality of secular philosophy in favor of a more religiously and politically-motivated one by erasing the words of Jefferson and others of the Enlightenment period from textbooks.

The proposed changes would affect textbooks across the country, so it was without surprise that a firestorm of controversy erupted on talk shows, news programs, blogs, and in classrooms.

In an effort to block the events of Texas from having an effect on California students, legislators in that State introduced a bill, SB1451, to guarantee that none of the Texas standards could be used in California schools by requiring California school boards to report findings of the revisions to the California State Education Department.

Among the list of proposed changes by the Texas Board:

- America is a Christian country, founded on “Biblical principles.”

- Conservative icons like Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Phyllis Schlafly, and the “Moral Majority” are history’s heroes, but progressives and progressive values are “at odds with what it means to be American.”

- Words like “democracy” have nothing to do with America and moved to replace it with “constitutional republic” throughout texts; also, “capitalism” has a negative connotation to some, so it is to be replaced with “free-enterprise system.”

- Replace the writings of radical writings of Thomas Jefferson with the more conservative thoughts of John Calvin, Thomas Aquinas, and William Blackstone.

- A list of other historical figures, whose thoughts influenced or expressed political revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as part of the Enlightenment, and who are not favored by conservative members of the TSBE, notably those of Latino heritage, are also to be removed from history books.

The Board also refused to require that “students learn that the Constitution prevents the U.S. government from promoting one religion over all others.”

Board members specifically objected to Jefferson’s oft-spoken views on the separation of Church and State, and his thoughts on revolution being a good thing- “Every generation needs a new revolution. A little rebellion now and then is a medicine necessary for the health of government.”

From January to March of 2010, more than 100 amendments to the State’s 120-page curriculum were made that effected subjects such as history, sociology, natural science, and economics.

In May, 2010, the vote was 10 to 5 in favor of the new curriculum standards for the next decade; the voting fell completely along party lines, with every Republican voting for the changes and every Democrat voting against the measure. One board member actually walked out of the proceedings,voicing disgust for the political motivations behind the revisions.

After initially removing Jefferson from the list of approved historical figures, board members backpedaled, only after intense and widespread disapproval, and reinstated him into the curriculum.

When asked, in 1814, how he regarded blasphemy, Jefferson replied, “I am mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, the sale of a book can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry too, as an offense against religion; that a question like this can be carried before the civil magistrate. Is this then our freedom of religion? And are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold, and what we may buy? And who is thus to dogmatize religious opinions for our citizens? Whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut or stretched? It is an insult to our citizens to question whether they are rational beings or not, and blasphemy against religion to suppose it cannot stand the test of truth and reason. If M. de Becourt’s book be false in its facts, disprove them; if false in its reasoning, refute it. But, for God’s sake, let us freely hear both sides, if we choose.”

You can ban any book you like. You can burn the pages and dance merrily about the embers; but the printed page does not carry the soul of the words any more than a photo carries the soul of the person in the image. You can imprison the speaker, but not the ideals which they advocate. Thoughts and ideas can not be chained or placed behind bars; they escape through the cracks, and through the places where the tiniest torch of freedom sheds light upon the darkness of ignorance.

The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression has a list of lawsuits it has filed across the country on behalf of freedom, and other resources, for further reading.

 

Sources: Wikipedia, Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, CNN, California Department of Education, Texas State Board of Education, History News Network, Dallas News
© 2011 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

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