Opinion

Reframe the debate on Net filtering

If educators set out to stock a school library, would they purchase a thousand books without regard for content, put them out for general student use, and review them for appropriateness after the fact?

We believe the process is more thoughtful, more deliberate. Yet that is essentially the method we have chosen in providing student access to the Internet in our schools.

Last week, we reported reluctance by the Bainbridge School Board to take an aggressive stance toward “filtering” of online material. Sites that involve nudity and sexual acts have been blocked, with those deemed to promote “Militancy/Extremism” now added to the proscribed list as well. But other content

categories, including “Violence/Profanity,” “Drugs/Drug Culture” and “Cult” remain generally accessible.

We should note that some school board members took issue with our coverage, and felt the phrase “access is okay” implied their endorsement of questionable sites. But our intent was

narrow, i.e., “access is permissible”; in fact, we respect the board’s circumspection and caution on the side of free access.

But perhaps it’s time to reframe the discussion, to bring the challenges posed by the new medium in line with our learning and experience. Rather than thinking of the web in terms of neologisms like “pages” and “sites,” let’s return to a more

academic and appropriate term: “texts.”

This is not mere legerdemain; it suits the metaphor of the Internet, the great democratizing aspect of which is said to be that anyone can be a publisher. Have some thoughts on national affairs, obscure rock bands or pumpkin pie? Design your own web page and you can share your views with the world. Millions of folks appear so inclined; in a half-decade or so of general

public use, the graphics-heavy web has mushroomed into a mind-boggling network of niche information, instantly available to anyone with a computer and a modem.

Unfortunately, the by-product has been a great proliferation of sites – of texts – that are crass, exploitative or of no informational or educational value. Turns out that just because you can be a publisher, it doesn’t mean you have something worthwhile to offer. Indeed, we dare say that while the medium is new, the preponderance of authoritative information is still associated with old-guard institutions – universities, government agencies, professional organizations and journals, and media outlets.

As we try to make sense of it all in an educational setting, viewing Internet content as a series of discrete, self-contained publications and manuscripts leaves us in better stead.

Consider: A community trusts that the books selected for a school curriculum or library will be appropriate for a given age group; even controversial choices are made based on reasoned and identifiable standards. That’s why, when a parent objects to “Huckleberry Finn” and its racial pejoratives, or “Snow Falling On Cedars” and its swinging genitalia, teachers can explain and defend the texts on their historical or literary merits.

Why not, then, an aggressive policy on Internet filtering? We are not advocating “censorship” (although we’re not sure that loaded term even applies). What we suggest is that educators reclaim their position as mediators of the texts to which their students are exposed. That turns the question from one of exclusion – which web sites should we block? – to one of

inclusion – what should we teach?

Back to our analogy: We don’t fill up the school library

randomly, then decide which books we don’t like and lock them away. We choose our texts with care.

Why should our standard for choosing online texts be any

different?

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