Cognitive Liberty

A colleague of mine, a Grade 8 Language teacher, decided to read The Hobbit with her class.

A few days after beginning the novel, one of her students told her that his mother had forbidden him from reading it. He was to sit in the hall whenever its contents were discussed. The Hobbit had been written by the Devil, his authorship made clear by the presence of magic and the absence of Jesus.

The student wanted to read the book anyway, and asked my colleague if she would permit it. 

What must her response be? What do international and local standards suggest regarding a child’s right to read, particularly in relation to religious beliefs?

For international standards, we can look to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Canada ratified the CRC in 1991, and is bound to it by international law. South Sudan, Somalia and the United States are the only three countries in the United Nations which have not ratified, accepted or acceded to the CRC. It is worth reading in its entirety, and can be found here

The first section of Article 13 addresses reading novels:

1. The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice.

According to the CRC, reading The Hobbit is a form of freedom of expression, and is a child’s right. The second section of Article 13 outlines restrictions to this right:

2. The exercise of this right may be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:
(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others; or
(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals. [bolding mine]

I am reasonably confident that reading The Hobbit in Grade 8 Language classes does not pose a threat to public order, health or morals. If parents have any rights provided by law to prevent their child from reading a fantasy novel, I am unaware of them.

How about local standards? The Ontario College of Teachers (OCT) licenses, governs and regulates Ontario’s teachers. All public school teachers are members of the OCT, and their qualifications can be found on its website.

The OCT sets ethical standards for its members. One of the purposes of the standards is to guide ethical decisions and actions made by teachers.

The standard of Respect states that ethical teachers model respect for spiritual and cultural values. It also states that ethical teachers model respect for freedom and social justice.

Permitting the student to read The Hobbit (respecting his freedom) undermines his mother’s religious beliefs and teachings. Is this a failure to “model respect” for her spiritual and cultural values? And if it is, what is the alternative? Should the child’s right to read be restricted in order to show proper respect to his mother’s religious beliefs?

The ethical standards of the OCT provide ambiguous answers to these questions. Teachers are advised to use their professional judgement.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child provides us with a clear answer. In Section 1 of Article 2, it is explained that the rights of a child shall be respected and ensured irrespective of the parent’s religion. 

Philosopher Dan Dennett calls attempts to ban learning outside of religious doctrines “enforced ignorance”. It is comforting to know that teachers are not obliged to enable this practice.

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