Q. I read that the local order of police wants the book "The Hate U Give" (by Angie Thomas) removed from a high school reading list. We should encourage children to read anything they can. What can parents do to support teachers and stand up to the book banners?
Let’s be real. This isn’t “book banning.” True book banning means the government makes it illegal to possess the book. Read Ray Bradbury’s "Fahrenheit 451" for details.
Removing a controversial book from a reading list or disallowing it in a classroom is what should be called “responsible decision making.” (Or, perhaps, “irresponsible decision making,” depending on the decision).
The police want "The Hate U Give" removed because they believe it fertilizes a resentment of law enforcement in young adults. They want to help protect our children, the rule of law, and their own lives. You might end up disagreeing with them, but don’t they have the right to make the case for their concern?
Book selection is the most important curricular decision an educator can make. Books have nearly as much power as people to change minds, hearts, and even history. I give teachers a lot of latitude in making educational choices, including books, but because books are so powerful, isn’t it reasonable to have public accountability?
Those who rant against “censorship” and “book banning” are often being hypocritical. Suppose a teacher assigned students to read Playboy or a book glamorizing the KKK. Does the PTA have the right to “ban” this material? Most of us would say “of course,” even the ranters.
So if we believe it’s okay to disallow “certain” books, then we have to determine who gets a say in the decision. This is where the conflict erupts.
The ranters would say, “Teachers and school officials alone should decide.” But public education doesn’t exist for teachers. It exists for children. Teachers are merely servants to kids, parents, and the public. Even though we have discretion in crafting our curricula (or should), what’s wrong with accepting help from school boards, PTAs, and citizens to help us decide which books our children read? It doesn’t mean that any one group should have veto power. But if the police or parents or anybody else has concerns about a book, their concerns should be discussed and debated. And if there is validity to those concerns, what’s wrong with simply replacing the book with a better choice?
“But children should talk about current events,” the ranters say. Fine, but can’t we find the universal truths that underlie current events in books whose excellence is largely uncontested? My eighth grade students last year were able to relate the values in "To Kill a Mockingbird" to current events with ease. And don’t you think Julius Caesar might have something to say about today’s landscape? Most “current” books will be forgotten once they’re no longer current. Does anyone still read Gloria Miklowitz’s "After the Bomb" or "Unwed Mother?" Why should we settle for feeding our children junk food ephemera when we could be giving them a nutritional feast that has stood the test of time?
“It’s frightening that parents should have so much power over book selection,” say the ranters. I can think of two things that are way more frightening than parents being concerned over what their kids are reading: 1) Parents who don’t care at all about what their kids are reading. 2) A world where teachers make unilateral decisions about what goes into our children’s minds without any accountability. When a teacher chooses "Looking for Alaska' instead of "Walden," the teacher is basically “banning” "Walden," is she not? Doesn’t it make sense for such sweeping discretionary power to at least be superintended?
“We have the right to free speech,” the ranters proclaim. But a right without responsibility is a deadly toxin. Just because we can shout vulgarities, print pornography, and promote racism doesn’t mean we should do so. And it doesn’t mean that citizens should have to sit in silence if a public school decides to disseminate those ideas to their children.
“We should encourage children to read anything they can,” you state. I do not agree. A book is only as meaningful as its ideas, and not every idea needs to be planted in our children’s minds. My students must write reports on books of their choice, but I have to approve the books. I’ve recently had to disallow "Fifty Shades of Gray" and "Mein Kampf." I “banned” these books because I’m an adult, and they’re kids, and that’s what adults are supposed to do for children. As Special Agent Dale Cooper said, “There are things dark and heinous in this world. Things too horrible to tell our children.” Those books will still be available for them when they’re adults. Why encourage them to rush so soon into the darkness?
I’ve read the Constitution, and I am utterly unafraid of losing our right to print and peruse whatever books we choose. What terrifies me, however, is the possibility that we may be letting go of our responsibility to give our children our best and, if necessary, to shield them from the “dark and heinous” things in this world.