NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2022

Walla Walla students challenge book bans by reading the material some want to censor

I recent­ly fin­ished read­ing “The Hate U Give,” by Ang­ie Thomas in prepa­ra­tion for a facil­i­tat­ed con­ver­sa­tion with high school stu­dents this weekend.

I will be the adult facil­i­ta­tor for a con­ver­sa­tion with high school stu­dents from Wal­la Wal­la High School who decid­ed to inten­tion­al­ly read the five books chal­lenged by par­ents in their dis­trict (“Gen­der Queer,” “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” “The Hate U Give,” and “The Bluest Eye”). Instead of avoid­ing these books, a group of stu­dents have decid­ed to read them and engage in facil­i­tat­ed con­ver­sa­tions by adults with exper­tise in the con­tent area addressed by the book.

Accord­ing to a new Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion report, there were 330 “book chal­lenges” in the fall of 2021.

Some of these chal­lenges result­ed in books being banned from school libraries. In some places the book chal­lenges hap­pened at the local lev­el in school board meet­ings. In states, like Ten­nessee, Flori­da and Texas, whole top­ics — race, gen­der and sex­u­al­i­ty — have been for­bid­den from dis­cus­sion in class­rooms. Lists of books and authors have been for­bid­den from use in classrooms.

This is not the first time in his­to­ry we have seen books banned from libraries. Cen­sor­ship of words has tak­en place since the ori­gin of writ­ten text.

In ancient Chi­na, cen­sor­ship was con­sid­ered a way to main­tain the good char­ac­ter of peo­ple. In 1930s Ger­many, books writ­ten by promi­nent Jew­ish authors were burned by uni­ver­si­ty students.

More recent­ly, a con­tin­gent of Russ­ian aca­d­e­mics have sought to elim­i­nate books by Holo­caust sur­vivors or any­thing ref­er­enc­ing Hitler as offen­sive to Russ­ian ide­ol­o­gy. In sev­er­al arti­cles I have read in prepa­ra­tion for my con­ver­sa­tions with stu­dents this week­end, vet­er­an school librar­i­ans have shared this rash of chal­lenges and bans is the most intense in recent history.

Why now?

Inter­est­ing­ly, the most vehe­ment argu­ments against “can­cel cul­ture” — the notion that pub­lic fig­ures are pub­licly shamed and thrust out of social or pro­fes­sion­al cir­cles — have come from those who are polit­i­cal­ly conservative.

Book chal­lenges and leg­is­la­tion lead­ing to book and idea “ban­ning” are also com­ing from polit­i­cal­ly con­ser­v­a­tive circles.

Con­fused? I am.

What are the most recent com­plaints about books in schools?

A cer­tain sub­set of par­ents do not believe cer­tain top­ics are “appro­pri­ate” for chil­dren to be address­ing in schools. For instance, sex­u­al­i­ty, gen­der iden­ti­ty, sys­temic racism. They either believe the top­ics are not age appro­pri­ate or believe it is their place as par­ents to be teach­ing their chil­dren on these topics.

Stu­dents in many regions of our nation are respond­ing in a vari­ety of ways — by writ­ing let­ters, speak­ing up at school board meet­ings, and pur­chas­ing the books.

Stu­dents in Wal­la Wal­la have been read­ing “chal­lenged” books with inten­tion. Although until stu­dents ini­ti­at­ed this move­ment, they were able to enlist the sup­port of their high school librar­i­an to find adults to facil­i­tate con­ver­sa­tions for each book. One such facil­i­ta­tor was actu­al author of the book stu­dents were reading.

As a thir­ty year vet­er­an edu­ca­tor, the moth­er of three now-adult chil­dren and the wife of a high school Eng­lish teacher, I am deeply con­cerned about the cur­rent trend of cen­sor­ship — both of books and ideas. As an edu­ca­tor devot­ed to racial equi­ty, I am con­cerned about the dozen states that have passed leg­is­la­tion in the last year ban­ning any con­ver­sa­tions about race and sys­temic racism.

We can­not heal as a nation by ignor­ing our past — the good, the bad and the ugly. We can­not move into the future and flour­ish if our chil­dren are not taught to be crit­i­cal thinkers, which requires they be exposed to many vary­ing per­spec­tives and ideas and pro­vid­ed with the skills to deter­mine what is fact and opin­ion, how to build a case for or against an idea.

We are a nation that says we take pride in free­dom of speech… but only when that speech, those words align with our val­ues? That does not sound like free­dom to me. Do we think so lit­tle of our chil­dren? They are exposed to Tik­Tok and Insta­gram and Snapchat where they con­verse unre­strict­ed for hours of every day.

Why would we not want to cre­ate spaces for dia­logue for all of us about the most dif­fi­cult top­ics in pub­lic squares? Let’s not shy away from dif­fi­cult dis­cus­sions and sen­si­tive top­ics. This is Amer­i­ca, and in Amer­i­ca, we acknowl­edge our blem­ish­es and weak­ness­es as well as our strengths.

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