The corporate state media is reporting that Florida charter school principal has been forced to resign after a parent complained sixth graders were exposed to pornography during a lesson on Renaissance art that included Michelangelo’s David.
This framing does not accurately convey what happened. The principal stepped down because of a failure to properly notify parents about what their school was exposing children to. It was not just one parent who objected. Others objected to the failure to provide an opportunity for informed consent, a fundamental principle of ethics in free and open societies.
I believe the failure to inform was an error. But it happened. What else had the school failed to inform parents about? I don’t think the principal should have resigned. Parents were upset. This could have been a learning moment for the school. Instead, the school board punished the principal.
The statue of David is arguably the greatest instantiation of Renaissance sculpture and a projection of the humanist ideals I hold dear. It was created by the artist Michelangelo between 1501-1504. It depicts the biblical hero David who, with a stone from a sling, rendered unconscious the giant Philistine warrior Goliath and then beheaded him with his sword. The sculpture is renowned for its lifelike representation of the human form and its exquisite detail.
From its inception, the statue was controversial for its nudity. At the time of its creation, many people considered the depiction of nudity in art to be inappropriate and scandalous. Some believed that Michelangelo had gone too far and that it was an affront to public decency. Despite this, the statue of David was eventually placed in a public square in Florence, Italy, where it has been on display for more than half a millennium. The statue is still controversial for its nudity today. While many object to its nudity, others see it as a celebration of the human species. I hold the latter opinion. At the same time, I recognize the right of parents to make their own determination about whether their children see depictions of male genitalia.
It is important to understand that the objection to David is not exclusively a Christian phenomenon. There are Jewish parents who object to David because he is not circumcised. They find the imperialistic Christianization of a Jewish patriarch offensive and wish to shield their children and communities from seeing this. There are Muslim parents who object on the grounds that Islamic aniconism forbids the depiction of holy figures. Remember, David is also a patriarch in Islam (in this version of the myth Dawud defeats Jalut with a single stone from his slingshot). Singling out Christians represents a narrow understanding of the issue—and a deliberate one, as I will discuss in a moment.
As readers know, I am an atheist. As I intimated in a recent blog, I have in the past identified as an anti-theist. My lack of faith notwithstanding, in a free society, one that protects religious liberty, freedom of conscience, and recognizing the central role the family plays in civilizational matters, parents are within their rights to exercise authority over their children and complain about curricular matters and pedagogical techniques when these contradict the tenets of their faith (see here). It doesn’t mean that all their demands should be heeded. These are, after all, public schools in a secular society. But this isn’t a communist or fascist society where the state is the parent. Parents have a role to play in the development and practice of public instruction.
Because we live in a free society where informed and voluntary consent is a core value, parents are often confronted with permission slips making sure they know the nature and risks of activities their children may be involved in. At my children’s school, a progressive school, I had to sign a form allowing my youngest to participate in Junior Achievement (one of the many forms I signed concerning a variety of activities), which, because it was an exercise in pro-capitalist indoctrination, and given the number of lefty and socialist parents there, the school felt an important step. I appreciated that. At the same time, I was upset that Junior Achievement was allowed into my son’s second grade classroom in the first place. I know why second graders are targeted by corporate propaganda. Obviously not everybody agreed with me. And, so, the propaganda show went on. Without my kid. (You can read about this here.)
It is also important to understand that modesty is not something unique to Christians. The Chinese have modesty rules and pixelate and cover statues. Jerusalem has refused to accept as gifts certain statues because they are nude. Orthodox Jews have a strong sense of modesty and cover things. Muslims have strict modesty rules, as well. Christians aren’t any more prudish in this regard. There are busybodies to be found in most if not all religions. Christians are not the only ones concerned about the sexualization of children, either. As an authority on the problem of child sexual abuse, I have problems with the sexualization of children. It’s the level of anti-Christian bigotry that marks the current period that singles them out for special treatment. I say this as no lover of Christianity—or any religion or religious-like ideology.
We live in a religiously plural society. The Bill of Rights protects religious belief and expression. Perhaps we allow too much. We allow parents to surgically alter their male children’s genitalia (see here). We allow parents to force their female children into restrictive clothing early in life (see here and here). I get no traction in raising concerns about these practices. But parental concern about the sexualization of children seen in parents wanting to know what their children are being exposed to isn’t analogous to the things we allow that violate the child’s personal freedom in often permanent ways. There is plenty of time and opportunities in life to see nude statues, read books about gender ideology, and view pornography. And it was not as if in this case the kids couldn’t see David. Some parents simply wanted to be notified first. (See here, here, and here.)
Again, the issue here was the failure to properly notify parents. Indeed, this case would be unremarkable but for the current political climate. Progressives are endeavoring to make this incident about the alleged backwards and intolerant character of Christian conservatism in order to advance the project to make education a black box and proliferate spaces where the development of children is disrupted by exposure to age-inappropriate content (see here and here). This case is being linked to the legislation and policy being rolled out in states across American requiring schools to open to the public curricular content and pedagogical strategies, in particular the reforms of Ron DeSantis, the governor of the state of Florida. Progressives are weaponing this and other cases to thwart the parental rights movement.
I remember a time when liberals and leftists insisted on transparency in public institutions, and involvement of the community and parents in the education of their children (see here). This author of this blog, who is a liberal and a leftist, still does. However, liberals and leftists are in short supply these days. And so it is up to conservatives to take up the cause and reclaim and restore the proper relationship of the family to the state characteristic of a liberal republic. Far from being backwards and intolerant, the push by conservatives to restrict and even dismantle the administrative state and technocratic apparatus that progressives have captured and direct at the behest of corporate power reflects of the revival of democratic-republican desire and liberal values. The populist-nationalist aspirations this movement portends is a welcome development for those who love liberty and their children. Indeed, whether they know it or not, conservatives are preserving the traditions of the Enlightenment in their darkest hour.