School officials say the materials are not banned, just “frozen” while the board vets them. So far, this vetting has taken nearly a year, as CNN has reported. “Schools are not the place for politics or identity to be shaped,” one mother who supports the ban declared.
She’s wrong. Schools are precisely the place where politics and identity are shaped, and because of this, students need the widest array of materials to learn from, including those that offend censorious parents on the left as well as the right.
“Forget the Alamo,” by historians Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford, is an important corrective. Like most Baby Boomers, I grew up believing the wildly untruthful Disney version of the Battle of the Alamo, told through the eyes of Davy Crockett. We were led to believe that the battle was heroic.
A fine book by Sherman Alexie, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” has been on the list of challenged books since it first appeared in 2007, largely because of its unflinching depiction of the lives of some American Indians. The magical novel “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini, has been banned because some parents seem to believe, rather ludicrously, that it promotes terrorism and Islam.
But banning books is not just the product of right-wing intolerance. Many liberal parents don’t want their children to encounter the N-word anywhere, not even in what is in my view the greatest American novel, “Huckleberry Finn,” by Mark Twain. And so they fight to ban a novel that eloquently and passionately attacks racism in 19th-century America.
“Of Mice and Men,” an important short novel by John Steinbeck, is also frequently challenged because of its supposed racial stereotyping, even though it’s a profound and humane book that raises issues every teenager should be asked to consider.
The popular SkippyJon Jones books by Judy Schachner — a whimsical series about a flamboyant cat who dresses up as a chihuahua — has also been on the condemned list. SkippyJon calls himself a “bandito” and sometimes puts an “o” at the end of English words to sound Mexican. Some liberal book banners call this stereotyping, and because Schachner isn’t Mexican, they accuse her of “appropriating” things from a culture that isn’t hers.
Now, there may well be books so outrageously prejudiced or depraved or provocative that young minds should not have to encounter them. We can acknowledge this, but I am wary of this slippery slope.
I suspect the ill-effects of banning books will normally outweigh the dangers posed by allowing unpalatable materials into the classroom on rare occasions. And surely we must respect our teachers, giving them the freedom to find and use materials they deem important. If we can’t trust them, the system is hopelessly broken.
I applaud the brave and eloquent students in York who have protested the banning of books in their school, including Central York High School senior Christina Ellis, who said at the virtual school board meeting on Monday: “I don’t think a moral compass will let you ban books about equality and loving each other.”
Students like Ellis are absolutely right to object to authoritarian attempts to control their worldview. Let’s hope they’re harbingers of protests to come. From coast to coast, the specter of book-banning has become a serious problem that threatens the very fiber of democracy.
It is of course exacerbated by the terrible partisanship that promotes group-think on both sides of the aisle. But without the free play of ideas and the liberty to read and talk about anything — in classes or in public forums — we become rigid, culturally ossified and worse. In other words, we’re finished.