Books have been banned throughout history. You might think in the 21st century we would recognize the ridiculousness of this censorship and stop banning books, however that is not the case here in America. As of recently there have been 150 bills introduced in 39 states restricting books and teachings, 2/3 of which target K-12 education. Books like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Art Speigelman’s Maus, Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue, and many more incredible books include those targeted. Many of the books that states are looking to ban are being banned because of their writings regarding race, gender, sex, drugs, or alcohol. Many of these bans make it clear that people don’t want to read or have their kids read about things that make them uncomfortable, or they don’t fully understand. To better understand how these book bans affect education, I reached out to both librarians and professors here at Wheaton to get their opinions on the topic.
English Professor Wesley Jacques offered the following opinion: “In my understanding, the current rise in bans and challenges is markedly a concerted effort that has both obviously partisan and more subtly cultural roots.” Jacques continued “There is a longstanding conservative desire to disrupt public education for commercial and, again, ideological purposes that relies on the belief that parents’ choices and feelings should be prioritized—via book bans as well as school vouchers, bussing students, etc.—especially if they undermine progress and revert our educational structures back to pre-Brown v. Board of education realities. That is, many books may get banned due to the opinions of people who haven’t read them (or any books) but do read divisive Tweets and Facebook posts in a way that empowers and emboldens ignorance. …Frankly, in the US we have a long history of actively miseducating students by way of limited resources, ideological biases, and only the texts that make doing so the easiest. So technically not much has changed. In fact, more new books are getting challenged and banned in this current context so realistically we’re just forcing younger readers to suffer through exactly what we forced previous generations to suffer through.”
Banning books has been used by political parties as a divisive tool to disrupt public education and in the long run the people they are hurting are the children who will miss out on reading these books. The more books we ban the less there is to read and therefore less opinions and viewpoints to read.
English Professor Sam Coale gave an example of a time when he didn’t know whether or not to proceed with a possibly controversial book: “A year or two ago at Wheaton in English 101 on landscape as a “character” in novels, non-fiction and films such as Into The Wild (both book and film to see how the writer and director treated the tale of Chris McCandless’s tragic death in different ways), “Grizzly Man,” and “Brokeback Mountain,” a friend recommended to me a French film, all of which takes place at a secluded lake where gay men gather: lots of unabashed nudity, sex acts, a murder, etc. The director’s use of landscape was brilliant, making it eerie, almost otherworldly, with no background music whatsoever: perfect for the use of techniques we were studying in the course.
For years people have been discussing books and films that might make students uncomfortable and for that reason should either be banned or preceded by a warning. I didn’t know what to do. I talked with seniors, colleagues, other students, friends and got a ton of different answers. I chose to say nothing, other than it was a French film and that the French tended to be a bit more open about sexual matters than Americans (ya think? )… I kept it very vague. The discussion that followed was the best of the semester.
Sex bothered no one. It was no big deal. We discussed techniques—cinematic, not sexual. It was terrific. Books and films that deal with uncomfortable, hot-button issues like race, sex and gender should not be banned. If it makes a student feel uncomfortable, well, discomfort comes with life itself. It is a genuine part of the educational experience. And when it happens in a classroom where discussion is possible, the more the better.”
The uncomfortable should not stop us from engaging with it, as Professor Coale points out, it in fact should be discussed, especially in classrooms where we learn and have educational experiences. We should not limit ourselves to what we are comfortable with, we should instead push ourselves and our students outside of their comfort zones.
Regarding the legislation of this issue, it was necessary to turn to the Political Science department. I interviewed Political Science Professor and Department Chair Gerard Huiskamp:
Professor Huiskamp contested that censorship can be seen on both sides of the political spectrum saying that, “There is also a censorious movement on the left which seeks to coal materials that seem to present outdated views. Like books that have stereotypical views of race.” Professor Huiskamp also stated when asked if these book bans were censorship that, “I think this definitionally is a form of censorship. There are books and they are trying to remove them from people seeing them. It’s tricky though because a school library doesn’t buy all the books in the world. They choose which books they want to buy, and an author doesn’t have a constitutional right for someone to buy their book.” Political Science Bradford Bishop also agreed that it is a “Straight forward form of censorship” Furthermore, Professor Bishop said of the future that, “This may effect students in politically conservative states, especially those in public institutions.” This last statement from Professor Bishop is the most important part of this whole ordeal because the students are the ones who are going to be hurt by this and at a disadvantage to students who live in states where certain books aren’t banned and are possibly even encouraged to be read. By banning books, you are automatically robbing someone of knowledge and education that they should otherwise have.
History Professor Kathryn Tomasek not only told me that book bans have been happening all throughout history, but also informed me further saying that, “Authoritarian efforts to keep us from talking about the tragic and cruel things that humans have done to each other threaten freedom of thought. Book bans are part of a spectrum of such efforts, and I hope that we will always resist them.”
Lastly, Librarian Cary Gouldin offered her opinion, writing that: “You are supposed to be upset and disturbed by it. But that’s the power of literature. It gets in your head and in your heart, it makes you think, and rethink, and think again. It gives you a space to look difficult things straight on and interrogate them, seek to understand them and to try to figure out how to do better and be better. Information isn’t dangerous, it’s what we do and don’t do that is dangerous and not looking at our uncomfortable past is truly dangerous.”
An important parting thought History Professor Tomasek offered was, “I really like a piece of advice that I read recently: “Read every banned book.” Find out for yourself what the controversy is about so that you can make your own decisions.” This advice is exactly what I would urge everyone to do, especially those in states or schools where they are banning books.