When Protection becomes Censorship

protection from danger verses freedom to learn


Safety concerns should never be ignored!  The universe is inherently hazardous to life.  For that reason it is impossible to permanently remove all hazards.  So one of the obligations of schools should be to teach students how to work safely by being aware of lurking hazards in their world.

A while back I visited our school's chemical stockroom.  I observed 14 cardboard boxes and other containers (mostly sitting on the floor) filled with a wide variety of chemical materials.  Since the floor is usually considered an inappropriate place to store such materials I asked about them.  I was told a group of people who apparently were concerned about health and safety but have no responsibility for educating our students stopped by (presumably with permission from the school administration), removed the materials from their well sorted safe storage locations, and boxed them for disposal at their expense!

While a couple containers were collected wastes that by law should have been properly disposed previously, none of the rest posed any hazard as packaged and previously stored.   None were the sort of chemical that because of chemical instability become more hazardous with time.  They included many that I had used in small quantities each year over the decades that I taught chemistry.  They included a sugar (!), a mineral acid, and many diverse compounds of metals known to have different degrees of toxicity IF consumed.  Included were powdered aluminum and zinc.  (I wondered why the compound aluminum chloride, hydrate was included.)  While admittedly a bright chemist could probably find a way to make every known substance hazardous in one or more circumstances, it seems a bit irrational to dispose of purchased materials that still have value for studying the components of our world and pose only tiny risks if stored and used prudently.

I propose a chemical stockroom is for real material substances much like a library is for knowledge and ideas.  It is a store house of materials useful for learning to safely work with such materials by actual practice.  Consider protecting firemen by prohibiting the actual use fire during their training.  It is equally insane to expect to teach students how to work safely with hazardous materials if they are precluded from ever working with anything potentially hazardous.  To allow groups to secretly select, remove and discard chemical materials from educational stockrooms is equivalent to allowing other groups to secretly remove books from a school library.

In recent years schools have experiences other kind efforts intended to protect students and teachers from potential harm.  There have been outside requests and suggestions that schools discard all chemical substances which have not been used in the past year in addition to any chemicals not required for scheduled experiments within next school year.  Such censorship of materials would make impossible any study not recently conducted by previous students and teachers or mandated for the future.  Such material censorship seriously handicaps the teaching of safe working skills.

Consider asking a librarian to determine which books and materials were used in the past year and to discard all the rest!  Consider asking a librarian to only purchase books and materials that are required reading for students next year.  Would doing so protect library users from potentially harmful knowledge and ideas?  Is it possible to predict what everyone might wish to read and study in the future?  Libraries house and maintain collections of what is known and previously thought for the possible study and consideration of people in the future.  Likewise school stockrooms should contain materials possibly of value for students and teachers wishing to study material substances.

Attempts to irrationally restrict the use of any potentially harmful material ignores science as an activity to be learned by practice.  Removal of all potentially harmful substances from schools would have exactly the same effect on understanding our material world as clearing the library would have on the study of knowledge and ideas.  Our civilization was created when our forefathers freely studied past knowledge and considered new ideas.  To censor the study and investigation of the materials that make up the very universe required for our existence risks nothing less than the successful continuation of our civilization.


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created 4/13/2004
latest edit: 9/12/2005
by D Trapp
Mac made