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At the high school where I last worked, the librarian had what we all understood to be an ironic trinket sitting on her office shelf: an action figure of a librarian that made an amazing shushing action when you pushed a button, providing welcome levity. That’s all the action figure could do; today’s librarians, who must confront increasing ranks of violent protesters, could use a lot more features to fight back.
With school politics proving a strategic wedge issue for Republicans from Washington State to Virginia to Florida, more and more school boards are glomming onto the convenient optics of book banning. At least 1,586 individual books were banned from July 2021 through March of this year, PEN America reports, citing an “alarming” spike compared with previous years.
And yes, they are coming after librarians, too, the people who meet you in public spaces, listen to you and share inspiration in bundles that you can take out free of charge.
These underpaid civil servants are being called pedophiles and purveyors of pornography. They are receiving death threats and termination notices and facing lawsuits and criminal charges over what are perceived as obscene materials.
The tome-length stories they curate, of Tuscan gardens or fantastical undersea worlds, are being subsumed by the temporal template of outrage: headlines, tweets and three-minute local news segments.
Librarians are facing actual danger, but we all face harm if we demand that students’ reading material be less interesting, challenging and complex than their real-life experiences.
As an educator, I have seen this shadow of book banning shut down conversations, foment distrust among students and parents and put well-meaning school administrators on their heels as they perform lexical jujitsu: Their task is to both sponsor courageous conversations about thought-provoking, topical material and identify books that are perceived to cause undue discomfort. If the broad aim of education is to prepare students to become citizens in a pluralistic, often contentious society, trying to maintain this difficult balance can be stultifying.
I saw these trends play out in real time last year in my hometown, where my daughters go to school. A teacher read a passage from Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” to his eighth grade language arts students, saying the full N-word, while offering no trigger warning and little contextualizing before or after.
This upset a student attending the class remotely, and after a few days of muddled conversations among parents, teachers and principals, the superintendent (who has since retired) decided it best to put the book on “pause.”
Reactions varied from enraged to eloquent, though I felt the most poignant came from the 25 or so eighth graders who formed the group Students for Free Speech, and whose ranks included the student who was initially vocal about being discomfited.
They met biweekly and co-authored a letter to their administrators: “Most of us didn’t know about the conditions of life on Native American reservations before conducting research . . . and reading the book. We’ve managed to go 13 or 14 years, nine years of in-school education, and learn absolutely nothing about this issue. And just after we started learning about it, we stopped.”
Had the book not been paused on page 64, they would have discovered that the white character who uttered the racial slur (Roger) to the Native American protagonist (Junior) would have a moral education of his own.
Through my nearly 30 years of teaching high school English, I’m hard-pressed to think of a single worthy book that couldn’t somehow be perceived as offensive to someone.
This would slowly lead Roger toward respect for and connection with Junior, his basketball teammate. The weeks of classroom discussions that would follow this developing relationship, by turns and degrees, would also have examined Junior’s own racial biases as he moved each day between “the rez” and his predominantly white high school.
In these discussions, students would invariably confront their own biases and learn that forgiveness, redemption and mercy are integral for any community attempting to move beyond surface judgments into something more sustainable.
But these points about the actual book were never mentioned in the public forum, leaving me to wonder who had actually read the book.
This made the next sentence of that student letter really sting: “Exposing us, your students, to new ideas is an instrumental part of learning. Whether you or we agree with them or not, we need to be exposed to more perspectives.”
Banning books that openly discuss racism, violence and human pain does not protect students from these realities, and only lessens their capacities to contend with them in nonfictional spaces.
Through my nearly 30 years of teaching high school English, I’m hard-pressed to think of a single worthy book that couldn’t somehow be perceived as offensive to someone. So, avoiding offense is not the point.
My concern when selecting reading material is whether the story moves with good character development and a compelling plot — if it’s teachable. When they find themselves vicariously at odds with the lives they read in context, students learn how to articulate their own beliefs.
To put devices away for an hour, to drill into a passage or two, to wring their connections and suggestions, to move beyond binaries into more subtle degrees: This is the work of English class. Have faith in it.
Amid this noisy volley of book banning, we lose the value of these protracted, deliberate, reflective conversations.
Tim Donahue teaches English at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City.