Thursday, September 30

Banning Books: Words Want To Be Free

In the last nine years, there were 4,312 challenges to books in libraries and classrooms. The American Library Association defines a challenge as a formal, written complaint filed with a library or school, and requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness. The association estimates five times as many complaints are submitted, but are never made formal.

Most the challenges are due to “sexually explicit” material and “offensive language.” Those challenges do not count material deemed “unsuited to age group,” which has its own subgroup. Violence finishes fourth; homosexuality a distant fifth.

Three Examples Of Censorship.

Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson.

In 2009, some parents complained about several novels containing foul language and cover topics — including sex, child abuse, suicide, and drug abuse — deemed unsuited for discussion in coed high school classes in Kentucky. The result was that several books were withdrawn from classroom use (but remained available in the library and student book club). One of these books was Twisted.

While none of the references in Twisted are graphic in nature, the book mentions erections, sexual fantasies, kissing, petting, and intercourse. None of which are described. There is drunkenness, and mentions of drugs (but no real usage), and the principal character considers suicide after he is jumped and beaten. He goes as far as putting a gun in his mouth. Some might consider this a point of awareness in the resolution to live or consequence of the actions we take against people. But others see it as something best left locked in a closet.

Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway.

Pulled from a Litchfield (N.H.) Campbell High School elective course classroom (2009) after parents voiced their concerns about several short stories in a unit called “Love/Gender/Family Unit” that dealt with subject matters including abortion, cannibalism, homosexuality, and drug use. The parents said the stories promoted bad behavior and a “political agenda.” The Campbell High School English curriculum advisor resigned.

The Hemingway story is about abortion and how an American, fearful of the impending responsibility, attempts to manipulate the principal character, Jig, into having an abortion. His goal is to present the operation as a simple procedure that is in her best interests, a panacea for all that is ailing her and troubling their relationship. The ambiguity leaves a good deal of room for interpretation, including that someone could easily use the story as a platform against abortion.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.

Ocean View School District middle school libraries in California now require parental permission for the book, which was simply considered "inappropriate for children.” It was also challenged in the Newman-Crows Landing, Calif. School District on a required reading list after a trustee questioned the qualifications of staff to teach a novel depicting African-American culture.

The book is the first of a six-part coming of age story that shows how strength of character and a love of literature can help overcome racism and trauma. In the course of Caged Bird, Maya transforms from a victim of racism with an inferiority complex into a self-possessed, dignified young woman capable of responding to prejudice. Most guidance sites consider it appropriate for ages 13 and above. The most concerning point of this story is that the trustee, someone well removed from children, was making the decision to remove the book.

The Interpretation Of Words Is Twice As Dangerous Than Words.

In some cases, challenges within schools and classes are sometimes the result of one parent asking for their child to be assigned different material. In such instances, parents are well within their rights. They need to take an interest in what their children are exposed to and when they are mature enough to consider the context.

Unfortunately, in making individual requests, some parents accidently convince teachers or administrators (or other parents) to misapply their concern. Some people honestly believe that what might be inappropriate for one child must be inappropriate for all children. And in extreme cases, they think questioned material is inappropriate for adults too.

And this why Banned Books Week is so important. Words and ideas want to be free, but not for the reasons most people believe. Sometimes the stories present ideas not to glorify their existence but rather to consider the human condition and help us make better choices.

It seems to me that self-assigned gatekeepers (especially those beyond parents) need to be less concerned with the content of any book and more concerned with what is being taught within the context but outside the content. Or, to be clear, more parents ought to read the books that their children are assigned to appreciate what positive discussions might come from them.

More importantly, they might be better prepared to refute or reinforce what children are being taught beyond the pages — in the classroom or by their peers. It is for this reason alone that dialogue, not diatribe, leads to enlightenment. Or, in the words of Henry Steele Commager ...

“The fact is that censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates, in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion.”
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