This week is Banned Books Week, a week to contemplate the various works of literature that for whatever reason have historically been deemed too dangerous for public consumption. Where the Wild Things Are, The Diary of a Young Girl, and The Old Man and The Sea are among them. The one that surprised me the most was A Light in the Attic. Many of these books were written for young readers and placed on banned lists by adults claiming to guard the interests of said young readers. Tuck that away for later because I’m coming back to it.
Something else has happened this week, and I’m trying to decide if its overlap with Banned Books Week was planned or coincidental. In the suburb of Denver where I grew up, teachers and students from several high schools, including the one from which I graduated, are striking and staging protests against a proposed curriculum change. The gist of the the problem is this, as quoted on thedenverchannel.com:
The school district proposed creating a curriculum review board that would make sure materials in history class do not “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”
What’s the underlying message there? We’d better not show how people in the past fought against injustice or broke the law, because it might make these students think it’s okay and want to do the same.
Does that scare anyone else? Maybe young people will one day find themselves in a position where they should engage in a little civil unrest, but that’s a different post for a different day.
If that curriculum change takes effect, should we assume that all study of wars, civil rights, and… well, basically anything that’s historically significant will no longer occur?
I think the question surrounding Banned Books Week and what’s happening in the schools is the same: can young people handle the difficult, even sordid truths about the human condition?
Like the situation in the schools, there are underlying messages behind book banning: if she reads this book about dating and sex, she’ll become promiscuous. If he reads this book about gang violence, he’ll become desensitized to violence. Letting her read this book about a wizard will lead to her shunning her religion and practicing witchcraft. This book about death will make him sad, and he’s too young to grapple with that.
I said earlier that adults who ban books (or change a curriculum) likely think they’re guarding the delicate sensibilities of young readers by restricting what they read or study. I have a question for those adults: at what point is it okay for kids to learn how to think, not what to think?
Books are a safe place to explore ideas and situations that are different from our own. That doesn’t mean we accept them. I’m not going to think kids murdering each other is okay because I read The Hunger Games (though I wonder if my former school district will ban that series as well, since it portrays civil unrest). The world is a messy, fallen place, but it’s one worth writing and reading about. Stories provide a means for understanding the world.
I read an article today that said Banned Books Week is about the celebration of intellectual freedom (read it here). I think it’s also about realizing the world is full of diverse people experiencing wildly different lives, who think and do things that are different than what we think and do, and that it all matters. Isn’t that a message we want to send to our kids?