Thursday, January 20, 2022

Picket Fences (the television show) "Elective Conduct" Season 3 Episode 6


My husband and I were happy to discover that all four seasons of the 1990s television show Picket Fences were available through Hulu. We remembered this thought-provoking, quirky drama series fondly. While we are enjoying re-watching, we were not especially surprised to discover that not all of the stories aged well, and we are  having very different conversations about the show than we did 30 years ago.

The third season begins with the fictitious town of Rome, Wisconsin receiving a federal court order to desegregate its schools via the forced bussing of  Black students from the (not fictitious) city of Green Bay. The (mostly) white residents of Rome face their prejudices, and liberal-minded Mayor pro tem Jill Brock calls in the local police in an attempt to stop the students from getting off the bus. Her plan is thwarted with a countermove by the National Guard (a la Little Rock). The story arc exploring race and racism continues for several episodes.

Episode 6 opens with fifth-grade students reading their reports for Multicultural Awareness Day. The teacher is cringe-ily dressed in stereotypical Native American garb and a girl reads her report indicating that Chinese people in the United States are best known for their restaurants, and are "good fighters". The Mayor's son Zachary reads his report on "Why White Kids Should Help Black Kids", citing academic achievement gaps, and indicating that these gaps are because of small brains that only think about sex. He is cut off by said cringe-worthy teacher, taken to the principal's office, and suspended. 

It turns out that he does have citations for his assertions. The achievement gap statistics came from the Educational Testing Service, and the information about brain size came from the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica

Cut to Jill Brock in a library speaking to the librarian (in what appears to be the public library). Brock has the offending volume of the Britannica in her hand, reads from it, and asks why it is in the library. The librarian explains that the 1911 edition is a "classic" and that "museums would kill for this set". Jill insists that it be removed because it "contains racial material". The librarian counters by suggesting that by those standards Mark Twain should be removed as well. She actually uses the N-word (on what at the time of original airing would have been network television).  Brock is able to get her son reinstated by demonstrating that the information came from a book in the library. She also gives him a good "talking to".

Wow. A lot to unpack here.

Let's start with the fact that the mayor wanted the book removed because it contained "racial material". Books about race, or written by people of color are being especially targeted in the United States today. Challenges are coming from the left and the right. And we are seeing classics such as To Kill A Mockingbird being questioned. Learning to question what we read in books is essential to a good education. We cannot question what we aren't allowed to see, however.

Deselection (or "weeding") of materials is part of the professional work of librarians. Libraries should have living collection development policies which outline what kind of materials will be held in the library, as well as what will not. Additionally, the policy should explain when/how/what kind of materials will be removed. Reasons for pulling books are myriad and include that they might be out of date, however, that is not the only consideration. Some works are classics, or perhaps are kept because they have value to historians. There is a lot that can be done with a challenged book between outright removal and leaving it on open stacks to be found by impressionable fifth graders who have not received appropriate research guidance. For instance, the encyclopedia set in question might be moved to a special collections room where it is accessible to scholars, but not necessarily to elementary school students, or it could simply be moved to a higher shelf, where it can't be reached by children without assistance, while keeping a current set in a more accessible place. What shouldn't be done, though, is for the Mayor to come barging in, insisting that a book be removed without input of the library board and without any kind of public hearing.

I will say this for young Zachary - I liked that he clearly used at least two sources and synthesized them. He also had full citations, such that his mother was able to find the exact quote in question. That's what citations are for.

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