An image depicting censorship
An image depicting censorship

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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