Sunday’s editorial offers a defense of books, even the offensive ones:
Today begins the American Library Association’s annual celebration of banned and challenged books, a week in which we recognize both our amazing freedom of expression and our freedom to learn and read.
The issue came to the forefront in Horry County Schools earlier this year when parents objected to the inclusion of the novel “Push” in middle school classrooms. The novel, which includes profanity and sexual content, is too graphic for children, parents said, and it was subsequently pulled from schools. The flap generated a few headlines and the district said it would develop new guidelines for classroom libraries. The controversy faded away.
But it was hardly the first time we had to confront this tension; nor will it be the last. The classroom has often been a battleground in this struggle, and both sides have the best intentions. On one side are those who want to protect our children from growing up too quickly and from topics that could disturb them. On the other side are those who feel children should be free to explore and learn more about the world around them from the pages of literature.
It’s hard – if not impossible – to say where the interests of one side to encourage reading and knowledge should outweigh the urge of the other side to protect and shield our children. The extremes are easy. Putting back issues of Playboy magazine into fifth-grade classrooms is a bad idea. Filling high school reading lists only with Berenstain Bears books would be similarly asinine. But the decisions get harder as the objections become more nuanced.
Many attempts have been made over the years, for instance, to remove “To Kill a Mockingbird” – a novel on Horry County Schools’ ninth-grade reading list – from schools across the nation. The ALA has catalogued numerous complaints about the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel citing racism, profanity and adult themes. The book explores some harsh topics, to be sure, including incest and racism. But the answer is not to shield our children from those realities. They will learn them soon enough outside of the safe confines of a novel. Instead, our role is often to help them understand what they are reading.
To accomplish this goal, educators and parents should be as familiar as possible with the books children are reading. Horry County Schools encourages parents “to read and discuss assigned novels with students.” The Georgetown County School District has a similar policy, and both districts have committees tasked with determining which books to include in school curriculum, a task of whittling down often gargantuan lists. “This creates a lot of reading time for me,” said Georgetown County Superintendent Randall Dozier.
Indeed, it’s most often parents or other respected adults who will make the most impact on a child or teen’s reading. Provocative books with adult topics can provide an important avenue into discussions as children grow into adulthood and encounter the larger world, with all of its mines and snares. It’s much safer for children to learn about sex or war or racism from a book than from personal experience.
Coastal Carolina University philosophy professor Preston McKever-Floyd, who will lead a discussion of banned books at the school on Monday, also points out that discouraging children from reading particular books can have the unfortunate consequence of discouraging them from reading altogether. Already Americans are reading fewer books. “Banning books is another excuse not to read any,” he said.
The answer to an offensive book is not reflexive removal. Indeed, Horry County Schools’ district policies hearteningly state that “library media professionals resist efforts by individuals or groups to define what is appropriate for all students or teachers to read, view, hear, or access.” Confronted with a book we find objectionable, the better response is discussion and debate. Open and frank conversation will force us to examine our own feelings and confront the fears that often lie behind our reflexes. If there’s any doubt about a book’s appropriateness, the default position should be to allow it to be read, coupled with a discussion of its content between child and adult.
People often want quick answers in life, said McKever-Floyd, also the university’s chaplain. But in determining the worth of literature, as in many other aspects of our world, “there are no quick answers.” Censorship is often a tempting strategy for quickly and easily controlling the ideas of others, and it can be used with the best intentions, but it comes with a high cost.
Depriving the next generation of books encourages an unrealistic, sanitized view of reality that does not square with our desire to give our children an ever-better education and start in life. It’s often the books that walk the tightrope of decency, that are heart-achingly and painfully realistic, that plumb the depths of human depravity, which also show us the heights of generosity and courage to which we can aspire and that leave us with the most enduring lessons of life.
If you go
What | Discussion of the ethics of banning books with CCU philosophy professor Preston McKever-Floyd
When | 4:30 p.m. Monday
Where | CCU’s Kimbel Library, Room 219