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When Should Children See a Nude Statue?
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When Should Children See a Nude Statue?

David, democracy, ding-a-lings.

David, by Michelangelo. (Photo by Roberto Serra - Iguana Press/Getty Images)

As one of the newer staffers at The Dispatch, I’m reluctant to generalize about the beliefs of my colleagues. I don’t know them as well as most of them know each other.

But my sense is that we agree broadly on most political subjects, as tends to be true at publications with an ideological bent. I base that conclusion not just on their published work but on the fact that the trusty Dispatch Slack channel rarely features spirited debate.

Rarely, but not never. Today is different.

I wish you were privy to it. Perhaps in the distant future there’ll be a place on the site—a corner, if you will—where Dispatch staffers can engage each other publicly for the entertainment of our readers. 

But that’s a topic for another day.

The debate that raged in the site’s internal Slack this morning had nothing to do with banning TikTok or the latest 2024 polling or the decompensating lunatic who’s taken to warning of “death and destruction” to come if he’s indicted. The subject was more urgent, and closer to home.

It was wieners. We were talking about wieners. One wiener in particular.

News out of (where else?) Florida this week is that the principal of a charter school in Tallahassee was sent packing after a group of sixth-grade students were exposed in class to a photo of a penis.

The class was Renaissance art history. The penis in question belonged to Michelangelo’s David, the world’s most celebrated sculpture. The school was Tallahassee Classical, which aims to provide a “content-rich classical education in the liberal arts.”

Three parents complained afterward, one reportedly about “pornography,” causing the school board to spring into action. The principal was hauled in and given the choice of signing one of two letters, the first a “voluntary” resignation, the second an acknowledgment that she was being terminated without cause.

I’m … more conflicted about this than I thought I’d be.

Partly because what happened at the school is more complicated than the pat narrative about what happened there would have you think.

The pat narrative is that the principal is a martyr to enlightenment. For the crime of educating her students about one of the West’s most exalted artistic achievements, she’s been burned at the stake by a gaggle of petty Savonarolas—or Helen Lovejoys, if you prefer. (The Simpsons analogy is apt.)

In this pat narrative, the fact that it happened in Florida is no coincidence. The principal’s martyrdom is a predictable result of Ron DeSantis’ expanding crusade against wokeness and sexuality being taught in schools. The so-called “don’t say gay” law, for instance, began as an attempt to shield young children from lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity, believing that they’re too immature to understand such things. But soon it will extend all the way up to grade 12, not because older teenagers aren’t mature enough but because the work of lib-owning is unceasing when you’re preparing to enter a Republican presidential primary.

If you worry about school libraries in Florida being depleted of material as puritanical activists set about redefining what’s “controversial,” you’ll naturally worry about students eventually losing access to master works like David.

The head of the school board at Tallahassee Classical made no bones about the fact that he was inspired by DeSantis. “Parents are the ones who are going to drive the education system here in Florida. The governor said that, and we’re with the governor,” Barney Bishop III told Slate in an interview. “We’re not gonna teach 1619 or CRT crap” either, he added. “We don’t use pronouns.” (He meant those pronouns, I assume.)

Excluding David from a class on Renaissance art history because of a moral panic is indefensible, but it wouldn’t be the first time adults have gotten the vapors upon glimpsing a schwanz rendered in gleaming marble. Knowing how faddish right-wing causes tend to be—remember the Tea Party?—lends this case a special indignity, though. Populist hobby horses are ephemeral; David is eternal. What a commentary on our times that the former should take priority over the latter.

I sympathize instinctively with the pat narrative, as does everyone who dislikes DeSantis and his approach to governing in Florida, I’d guess.

But is it true?

For starters, although he won’t elaborate on the advice of counsel, Bishop told more than one media outlet that the principal was fired for multiple reasons. The David episode was one issue, he admitted, but only one, and allegedly didn’t even come up during the special board meeting at which the decision to terminate her was made. “As I saw how things were going, how decisions were being made, I made the decision [that] this was the best thing for the school,” he assured Slate.

That makes me wonder if the David controversy has been inflated by the principal herself as a smokescreen for more serious misconduct. If she was fired for X, Y, and Z, and Z happens to involve showing an artistic masterpiece to sixth-graders, go figure that she’d want to emphasize Z while downplaying X and Y.

There’s a second problem with the pat narrative. If you believe Bishop, the problem with the David episode wasn’t that a group of 11- and 12-year-olds espied a stone salami. It was that the school had a policy of notifying parents about “controversial” elements of the curriculum in advance and in this case that policy wasn’t followed.

According to a rule passed in February, the school’s teachers are required to give parents a two-week, and one-week advanced notice of specific pictures, words and topics that would be discussed in a class. The school says this allows parents to decide whether to let their children participate or be given an alternative assignment.

Carrasquilla [the former principal] said a letter should have been sent out, but also told WCTV she believed only three parents complained.

“One parent, she was so upset, she was the one who said it was pornographic and shouldn’t happen,” Carrasquilla said.

Carrasquilla blamed the failure to provide notice on “a series of miscommunications.” According to Bishop, the art teacher believed that a letter notifying parents should have been sent in this case but never double-checked to see whether it had been sent before proceeding with his lesson. Two of the three parents who ended up complaining objected only to the fact that they hadn’t received any notice as promised, he claims, not that the image of David was shown.

There’s more.

Bishop alleges that when the art teacher introduced the image of David in class, he said to the students, “Don’t tell your parents.” That was a joke, presumably. The teacher also described the image as “non-pornographic,” an accurate assessment that an innocent 11-year-old nonetheless might not have understood.

Imagine your sixth-grader coming home from school and asking you what “pornographic” means. And when you ask him where he heard the term, he replies, ominously, “My art teacher used it in class today—but said we shouldn’t tell our parents.”

You might faint.

Maybe that’s what the parent who complained about “pornography” was complaining about. Not that they thought the image of David was pornographic but that the art teacher had inadvertently and unwisely piqued their child’s curiosity about pornography by saying the word.

See why I, and The Dispatch staff, are conflicted?

My no-stakes hunch is that 11-year-olds are plenty mature enough to view David in all his glory. I had seen images of the sculpture by the time I was 11, I’m reasonably sure, and when I reflect upon how I must have felt about it, I think, “Uh, totally fine?”

There would have been some juvenile tittering about it with my classmates, admittedly. A few of the parents at Tallahassee Classical complained that their kids were “upset” after being treated to the sight of a Renaissance dong, but unless childhood has changed entirely since I was that age, “upset” in this case means “giggling uncontrollably like Beavis and Butt-head.”

Childhood has changed in some ways, of course, and not for the better. When I was young, the sex-ed debate was typically framed in terms of parents not wanting their children to learn about sex “on the streets.” Everyone with a modem is on the streets now. In a world where internet access is ubiquitous, it feels sweetly naive to imagine kids getting their first glimpse of nudity in sixth-grade art class.

As for advance notice, I can’t fathom what the parents in this case expected when they learned their children would be taking a class in Renaissance art history. Not anticipating nudity in a course like that is like not anticipating F-bombs in a class devoted to the films of Martin Scorsese. I don’t recall my own parents being warned before we were shown Renaissance nudes in school—but then I also don’t recall them being warned before we learned about slavery or the Holocaust. One wonders which sensitive “controversies” require formal notice at Tallahassee Classical and which do not.

Having said that, I fear I have a blind spot in this matter. I’m not a parent, and I know enough parents to believe the conventional wisdom that becoming a mother or father changes how you engage with the world.

When I ask myself how I’d feel about my own 11-year-old child seeing David, particularly an 11-year-old daughter who’s unfamiliar with the male form, I do see the virtue of receiving a polite heads-up from school that the subject of wieners might soon be broached. Not because I’d feel obliged to “prepare” my child for it somehow—although some parents might—but because notice in a case as innocuous as this one would reassure me that notice will certainly be given ahead of truly sensitive lessons.

It’s like the famous rider about brown M&Ms in Van Halen’s contract. The point isn’t to cause a fuss for the sake of making a fuss, it’s to ensure that the other party to the contract is paying close attention to the terms.

As with all culture-war skirmishes, this one is inflamed by its extremes. If you’re to the left of, say, the average Daily Wire subscriber, your great fear in this matter will be puritanical social conservatives continuing to move the goalposts toward increasingly more absurd restrictions on what kids can safely learn in school. It starts with shielding them from trans identity politics and before you know it you’re slapping a fig leaf on the dingle-dangle of David. Most of us don’t want Helen Lovejoy to have a veto over what our kid learns in school.

But it cuts both ways. One of my colleagues in the Slack this morning brought up the specter of the “cool” libertine (almost invariably progressive) parent who’s keen for you to know that they’re fine with their child swearing, watching R-rated movies, and learning any ol’ thing about sex that their elementary school faculty cares to teach. Another colleague brought up a friend whose parent maintained that any kid old enough to ask a particular question was also old enough to be given a truthful answer.

Call that the “tossing kids into the cultural ocean to teach them how to swim” approach to child-rearing. It’s not the style I’d follow if I had children and it’s not the style many, many parents follow either. The fact that some do—and that, as my colleague noted, they’re overrepresented in media—encourages some moms and dads to put their guards up and err on the side of overcaution about what goes on in schools.

Which, in some cases, means being sticklers about demanding advance notice before their children confront history’s most widely viewed willy.

The barely submerged political question here, and what’s given the episode traction in the public imagination, is whether a school should have even the tiniest bit of latitude in introducing children to “sexual” content without parental consent.

The allegedly “sexual” content in this case, of course, being nothing more than the sculpted image of a nude man who’s not sexually aroused.

“Parental rights are supreme, and that means protecting the interests of all parents, whether it’s one, 10, 20 or 50,” Bishop told a local paper about the David episode. I agree—generally. Certainly I agree that if a parent wants to yank their child out of school and educate them at home, as they see fit, that’s their right.

But once they entrust their kid to an institution, particularly an institution that emphasizes “classical” education and might therefore be expected to want to teach kids about classical art, some allowance should be made for minor disagreement. Showing sixth-graders how to use a condom without parental approval, say, would represent more than a minor disagreement. Showing sixth-graders one of the planet’s great artistic treasures, which involves nudity only incidentally, does not.

My milquetoast compromise position, then, is that notice of the lesson on David should have been provided to parents as a courtesy but the principal shouldn’t have been fired for failing to provide it—unless, as Bishop implies, the reasons for firing her run deeper than this incident. If only there was hard evidence of those other reasons. Hopefully we’ll find out.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.