We Should Ban Book Banning: School Administrators, Teachers, School Counselors and Librarians can work together to design age, and emotionally appropriate reading lists.
Attending school and spending my initial professional educational years in NYC, I did not fully appreciate the extent of this “national” problem. NYC having over 500 high schools in one city makes it extremely hard to police the reading materials list in all of those school libraries. The “Book Censorship” issue first came to my attention when I served as a Trustee of the Brooklyn Public Library, and subsequently became a member of the American Library Association which tracks this problem nationally. It also did not pass my notice that a large number of the books that made the annual list were by Black authors; leading me to suspect that part of the opposition to many of these books was the fact that they “uncovered” the “unhealed” scars of racism that still exist in our nation. In part, the problem is exacerbated by the political structure of local school boards (LSB); that are forced to respond to every organized request from a “voting bloc,” no matter how anti-educational the idea. And in some cases this book removal issue is “whipped-up” and driven by school board members themselves due to their own prejudice, bias or just plain ignorance. To give credit where, and when it’s due; many school boards have acted in a brave and exemplary manner, and have pushed back against these attempts at censorship; which is so ill-fitting for our national character. With so many different types of students in many different types of schools; you will always have different responses to literature. I remember as a superintendent, I had to address the concerns of an elementary parent who felt the book: “Where the Wilds Things Are”, was giving her child nightmares; and she wanted it removed from the classroom library (other parents in the same class loved the book!). I have experienced Black high-school students who had a unique and personal response to: Life and Times of Frederick Douglass; Jewish students who respond to The Diary of Anne Frank, in a similar personal way. All Quiet on the Western Front and Johnny Got His Gun can be hard for a student with a parent or family member presently serving in the military. And reading Gilgamesh and the Mahabharata could be interpreted as challenges to a student’s religious beliefs. The list, and possible problems is endless; we would be left in the end with no literature at all in schools. Teachers must be aware of the “emotional-power’ of these works and manage these readings with student emotional well-being primarily in mind. But having a wide racial spectrum of students read about the experiences of a Frederick Douglas and Anne Frank allows for an opening by all students to the pain, struggles and triumphs of those who may not share their cultural heritage. I know that reading “Anne Frank” as a student pushed me to think (perhaps because like me, she was a teenager) deeply about the possibility that Black people were not the only humans in this world who suffered under some type of oppression; just because of who they were. Educators must be sensitive to parent’s concerns about “sexual topics”. Parents ultimately have the right to determine when and how their child is exposed to “sexual values.” In high schools this becomes a little more complicated, as parents don’t have the right to promote ignorance. Human sexuality and reproduction is very much a part of the biology syllabus (Todd Akin not a model student here). In this situation, it is the biology and not the English class that may cause some discomfort. Taking parent (and student) concerns under serious consideration; as with everything else we do, we must be driven by educationally ethical principles; and a benefit/loss analysis. An “opting out” plan must be organized and codified before the start of the school year; as making it up “on the fly” in response to a parent’s complaint will more than likely cause problems. We must also be careful not to publicly isolate a student whose parents have opted out of a particular book or activity. But I must admit; I was much more frightened when as a principal in NYC, a student explained to me in the hall, with a straight face; that gravity would prevent pregnancy. Parents should know, there is no guarantee of safety in ignorance; what a student does not know can hurt them! Teachers, school administrators and librarians are interested in enlightening and expanding the minds of young people; and they are very practiced at “steering” young people to age appropriate reading material. They have no interest in doing psychological or intellectual harm to children. School Guidance Counselors must be in communication and familiar with the content being presented to students. As educators we must dialogue, consult and keep parents informed as to potential reading topic’s problems. School administrators you must be aware of what literature is being taught in your school. Communication, consultation and information is always better than not; however, let’s leave book selection in the hands of the professional educators. School administrators, teachers, the counseling department, and librarians; working as a team can make these decisions, and the process work, in the best educational and emotional interest of the children. Finally, as a society we may want to look closer, and see that our primary problem may not be what children read; rather it is their ability to read; and, is there an equality of access to reading resources and experiences?