Lions, Tigers, and Book Burning! Oh My!

If a book is removed from a school curriculum or library because of its content (or even because of its problematic author), those who agree with the decision laud it as righteous, progressive, or necessary to protect those who may be made uncomfortable by the book.

So if a book such as Of Mice and Men or Pride and Prejudice is removed from the curriculum for racist language or outdated stereotypes, this is praised as a victory for social justice and for eliminating offensive content and authors.

However, those who disagree with a book removal loudly blame fanatics (who ironically also push for removal to protect certain people from discomfort) and will publish clickbait articles denouncing “banned” books.

So for example, if books such as Gender Queer or All Boys Aren’t Blue are removed for sexually explicit content, then this is considered fanatical book banning.

But therein lies the problem. We will all have different opinions about what makes us uncomfortable and about who should be protected from being uncomfortable. 

A friend recently traveled to Atlanta and while there took a picture in a local Barnes & Noble of the “Banned Books” display with titles such as Catcher in the Rye, Beloved, The Kite Runner, and Twilight. She posted the photo on Facebook to ask her followers if they knew where exactly these books were banned. She had done her own quick Google search and couldn’t find any information.

The first comments to come in expressed outrage at the banning (“What the fu%#!”) and love for the novels on the table (“Read them all. They are all great!”). What followed were stories about reading most of the books pictured when in school. Next was a post claiming the books were banned for sale. At first glance that may have been an attempt at trolling, but the crying sad face emoji left me confused about that. Nevertheless, the responses to that response expanded on the claim rather than joined in on the joke, if indeed that is what it was. 

There was even a reference to the bravery of Barnes & Noble for selling these books. Eventually, a discussion began about this as a brilliant marketing strategy.

Of course, none of these books are “banned,” or they would not be for sale, right there, out in the open, at the largest, most influential bricks-and-mortar bookstore in the country. Are they controversial? Yes, they are.

That got me thinking about the use of the word “banned” only in certain circumstances. First, the problem here, as always, is loose definitions. According to Merriam Webster, the first definition of the word “ban” is “to prohibit or forbid, especially by legal means (as by statute or order).” 

The thought that our government would outright ban a particular book is something that shocks the sensibilities of most Americans who believe in free speech. And the outrage would be well deserved. This is exactly what occurs in one of the “banned” books on the table, Fahrenheit 451, which ironically is about a society that employs a team of book burners who seek to destroy books that the government has banned. 

This is often the picture people have in their heads of banning books. And this image is what leads to the high level of outrage that often accompanies accusations of banned books. But what is actually happening, particularly in schools, doesn’t look like this.

Other definitions of “ban”  include “to prohibit the use, performance, or distribution of…” and to “condemn, especially through social pressure.” 

Let’s look at these other definitions. How about “to prohibit the use, performance, or distribution of…”? Since the first definition is in regards to the government, I assume this definition must refer to organizations and businesses outside of the government. So, for example, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which owns the rights to Dr. Seuss’s books and characters, decided to cease publication and licensing of several books. That sounds like it falls under this second definition. Many people were angry at this decision; I would say that I was disappointed. But this is a private organization removing certain books from their own library. Should they be allowed to do that? Of course.

And the third definition? To “ban” is to “condemn, especially through social pressure.” This is most often what is happening when people throw around the accusation of banning books, which is very different from a government prohibiting its citizens from getting their hands on a particular book. And it really doesn’t warrant the same emotional outrage.

All of us have certain things that we condemn (“to express complete disapproval of, typically in public”). But of course we do not always agree with each other on what exactly should be condemned. So as a society, we are left with trying to convince others to agree with our opinion. And one way to create change in other people’s opinions and behavior is through social pressure. 

For example, if you condemn the death penalty, you may speak out about it, attend protests, or volunteer with the Innocence Project, all in an attempt to put pressure on others to outlaw the practice. If you condemn police brutality, your best bet to enact changes is through social pressure. If you condemn drug use, you might make it your life’s work to socially pressure people to stop using drugs. You may even create apply social pressure to lawmakers to create legislation encouraging a drug-free life at public schools.

Speaking of schools, this is where the criticism of book banning is most prevalent. I want to start by saying that yes, I do understand that public schools are part of the government so that a public school, as opposed to a private school, banning a book would count as the government banning a book.

But again, let’s look at what exactly school districts are doing with books. As an educator for 25 years as both a tenured English professor and a middle school English teacher, I have been involved in many discussions about what books should be included in the curriculum.

What must be remembered is that there are a limited number of hours in a school year dedicated to reading literature. And that number continues to decrease each year as administrators continually lower the priority of reading and analyzing literature. That results in only a handful of books that can be taught in any given year. 

So decisions have to be made about what novels will be part of the curriculum. And since that number is going to be fairly small, that naturally means that thousands of books, millions of books, will be left out. That includes books that have been considered part of the canon for decades or even centuries.

Many school districts compile a mandatory reading list of books students are required to read in order to graduate.This list will necessarily only include a couple of novels for each grade. Other districts only put together a recommended list by grade and leave the final decision to individual teachers as to which books they will have students read. Obviously, this list can be much longer, and a new book can be easily added.

But what happens when a high school, for example, has a list of ten district-approved, required books but decides it wants to add a book, such as Looking for Alaska by John Green or Thirteen Reasons Why by John Asher. Then something has to be removed from that list. But what to remove? Romeo and Juliet? Tale of Two Cities? To Kill a Mockingbird

And more importantly, who decides?

Typically, the school board will make the decision. However, they will usually make such decisions after receiving ample feedback from teachers, administrators, parents, and the public at large. In other words, from their constituents. And guess what? People in favor of leaving Looking for Alaska off the list will use social pressure to convince the school board to do so. And those who condemn The Catcher in the Rye will also use social pressure to have that book removed, leaving room for something else.

For example, this year, the Mukilteo, Washington, district school board voted to remove To Kill a Mockingbird from its required book list after receiving increasing social pressure arguing that the book ”celebrates white saviorhood, marginalizes characters of color, and features the ‘n-word’ almost 50 times.” Does this mean that Mukilteo “banned” the book?

And if teachers have been given the power to decide to add a book to their class, usually from a recommended reading list offered by the district, they also must remove another one that they had been previously using. Ninth-grade teacher Liz Matthews from Hartford, Connecticut, for example, added The House On Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros to her reading list and, as a result, removed Romeo and Juliet. Would we say that Liz Matthews “banned” Romeo and Juliet?

In fact, Shakespeare has been one of the most popular writers to be removed from high school and university reading lists. In fact, most top-level universities, such as Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, no longer require English literature majors to have read ANY Shakespeare at all. Are they “banning” Shakespeare?

Let me be clear. I do not agree with any of these decisions. To Kill a Mockingbird should be required. Romeo and Juliet is far more complex and relevant than the simplistic House on Mango Street, and at times in my career I have taught both of those. And I believe that every single English literature major should be required to read Shakespeare. I am not saying they have to like it, but they certainly should be familiar with his works, if for no other reason so that they can argue intelligently about why they believe he should not be required reading.

It reminds me of an instructor we hired when I was vice chair at a college in Los Angeles. She had earned a PhD in English Literature from UC Berkeley. Upon joining our faculty, she was chatting with one of our professors and learned that he taught The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in his English 101 class every semester. Upon hearing this, she gasped and backed away from him, horrified. She then lectured him on how offensive and racist the novel is and revealed that not only had she never read it, but she never would. After all, it contained the “n” word.

Seriously. A PhD in English literature from UC Berkeley and she was able to get through all of that schooling without ever reading Huckleberry Finn? How is that even possible? How could one claim to be educated in English lit having never read what is considered to be the first true American novel? It is also one of the first to strive to use multiple dialects to differentiate characters. And finally, it is actually a novel that is anti-racist in its themes. You don’t have to like the book, but considering its place in literary history and the influence of its author, you cannot possibly ignore it.

Back to the Facebook post. One woman responding to the post was quick to point out that it is the religious freaks who are responsible for banning books. When challenged to provide evidence, she provided two links. The first was an article about one of her local school districts in Georgia that removed eight books from the school library due to “sexually explicit content.” The decision did not come about lightly, and it involved many parties. According to the article, first, a parent complained. The concern was presented to a local committee for review before being brought to a district-wide committee composed of teachers, parents, and others. They then reported their findings to the school board. They determined that “These are explicit, in detail sexual acts not discussed in health or PE class where you’re learning about sexual education.” The school board then voted to remove the books.

It sounds like a pretty thorough process with input from many.

The other link was to an article titled “50 Banned Books to Read Now (While You Still Can),” which listed mostly very recent novels and many that focused on LGBTQ+ issues. But more importantly, the author of the article makes two important statements. For one, she writes, “It’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever lose the ability to buy banned books on your own, so ‘while you still can’ part of the title is a bit of sarcasm.” Exactly.

And second, the first sentence of the article is “We’re not even through the first month of the year and already 2022 is shaping up to be one for the records in terms of challenged and banned books.” Shecontinues to use the word “challenges” interchangeably with “bans.” The problem is that challenging and banning aren’t remotely the same thing.

The word “challenges” is more precisely correct to describe what is typically happening around the country regarding books. People are challenging the inclusion of certain books in classrooms and in school libraries. Sometimes the school board agrees with the challenges, and sometimes they don’t.

So why don’t people typically use the word “challenges”? Because it is not strong enough to rile people up. So instead, the word “banned” is used on signs and headlines and memes. The connotation of the phrase “banned books” is very powerful, and its use creates feelings of outrage and anger. This is just what is needed to increase division and hatred. And it is perfect to increase sales and clicks. I would argue that one of the problems with our ever-evolving definitions of words is that, for example, despite the definition of the word “ban” diminishing to mean “challenges,” the emotional connotation has not changed. 

Don’t get me wrong. I have serious opinions about what should and should not be taught in school and what should and should not be included in a school library. I have objected to books that I have been told must be part of the curriculum. I have lost that challenge. I have objected to the removal of books. I have also lost that objection.

This is what happens when we live in such a diverse country as the United States. People are going to have different opinions and different criteria regarding what is not only appropriate for students of certain ages to read but what books should be read for a graduate to be considered a well-rounded, educated person. 

Needless to say, school districts will continue to add and remove books from their reading lists. More importantly, for those outraged at the so-called book banning going on at schools, I would ask, what is your solution? 

Who decides what is to be taught? And when school libraries are grossly underfunded and when more and more of them are turning away from spending money on physical books, who decides where those scarce resources should be spent?

Should it be parents? Individual teachers and local school districts? Or should it be the state? What about the federal government? Perhaps a federal agency, like the Department of Education, should be making those decisions. Should the agency determine what every student should read in the classroom and what every school library should carry?

In the end, this is a philosophical question and not a political one. For if you believe the federal government should be in charge of these decisions, that means that this would be true whether Miguel Cardona or Betsy DeVos is the Secretary of Education. To say the Department of Education should have that power only when my guy is in office turns it all political. 

Do conservatives really want Miguel Cardona to decide what their children are reading in school? And liberals? Would liberals be willing to put that power in the hands of Betsy DeVos?

I know I don’t want either of them involved in reading lists or in school library catalogs (or honestly in education at all!).

The solution is to keep it local, in a place where if you disagree what your school district is doing and what books are being used in the classroom, you actually stand a chance of using social pressure to convince those in your community and those on the school board to make changes.

Or you can simply express your outrage on Facebook and Twitter about “banned” books, contributing to the vilification of those who disagree with you and doing nothing to change anything.

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