Thursday, August 25, 2011

On Banning Books

(Props to the fine folks at Atticus Review for publishing this essay, as well.)

A New Jersey high school is in the news for book-banning this week. Full disclosure: I haven't read the book in question (Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami) so I can't say subjectively whether it's a good or bad book, in my opinion. On the other hand, that doesn't really matter, and here's why.

I suppose it could be a sign of parents taking an interest in their kids' education when they go to school boards to protest the assigning of books they don't like. But I don't recall teachers ever going to parents' places of employment and telling them how to do their jobs, or storming into churches and interrupting sermons to offer corrections and counter-arguments. Education isn't a democracy; it's a benevolent dictatorship. That's nothing new. It's always been that way, pretty much since the beginning. And that's good news!

I don't know about you, but I don't want everybody voting on whether or not doctors are right in their diagnosis, or this or that way of doing things is the safest on an auto assembly line. As a rule, we leave questions up to the experts of that given field... at least, we're supposed to. Sure, it doesn't always work perfectly (what does?) but we have plenty of checks and balances in place.

Any educator is all too familiar with the miles and miles of red tape, committee oversight, reports, detailed justifications, and peer reviews that go into pretty much every aspect of teaching. If you're a teacher, in addition to teaching, you often deal with the feeling that you're being watched, judged, constantly assessed and reassessed... And that's probably a good thing, too, because it keeps us honest.

That being said, I've been talking to my poetry and creative writing students this week about why contemporary poetry is so different from the poetry they read in high school. There are countless possible reasons for this but the one I think most likely is that in general, high school teachers shy away from assigning controversial material, even though it might be of greater interest to their students, to avoid pissing off drive-by parents.

I think it's worth pointing out that virtually no one protests when students are assigned a certain play that depicts premarital underage sex, murder, and suicide... namely, "Romeo and Juliet." Why? Well, because it's Shakespeare--which is really just a cop-out way of saying that the language is different, that Shakespeare didn't use certain words and descriptive styles deemed offensive by people who generally don't like reading, anyway.

I view angry parents protesting the reading material of their dear, innocent children the same way I view those few college students I've had protest their (usually already generous) grades on papers, wondering why they got a C or D just because they were two pages short of the minimum page requirement or they had typos in practically every sentence. In other words, they insist, "I didn't get the grade I deserved!" at which point I think, "How the hell do you know? Are you the expert here?"

We Americans have an odd habit; we tend to think that free speech means we deserve equal time and respect for our opinions on topics about which we know next to nothing. That's not how it works. Free speech doesn't mean, for instance, that we allow the creationists to take up half the semester with their ideas, then allow the students to make up their own minds. It means creationists can talk in church or stand on the corner with their crayon signs and say whatever they want, and we won't shoot them. It means I can write a blog, and you can tell me I'm nuts, and we vote for whatever political candidate we want or slap a bumper sticker on our cars. That's it. And, sadly, that's more than a lot of human beings have, and something the rest of us take for granted. But I digress.

We educators often say that we wish parents were more interested in their children's education. That's half-true. What we're really saying is that we wish parents were better at parenting. Grade school and high school teachers wish so many students didn't arrive at school dirty, hungry, and malnourished (and some of them with unexplained bruises). I wish I didn't have so many college students who had little or no grasp of history, grammar, and self-reflection. And we all wish there weren't so many young people still clinging to their parents' notions of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and other such nonsense (some of which went out of style centuries ago). But that's life. Educators deal with as best they can, and more often than not, they capitulate when the proper response would be, "I'm here to help your son/daughter, not you. Leave my office and don't let the door hit your ass on the way out."

I suppose this all comes back to the American tendency to view education (like so much else) as a kind of drive-thru window. You pay, you tell them what you want, you wait, and they hand it to you. If you get something you don't want, you complain, and they have to fix it. Right? Wrong.

I'm a firm believer that to be a good teacher, you should care about your students as human beings--which sounds obvious, but isn't, because it requires getting rid of a lot of aloofness and detachment and genuinely paying attention to their reactions, questions, and concerns. Teaching (like parenting, I'm sure) is hard work. But shame on anyone who takes the easy way out, who makes up for regular neglect by skimming a book and raising a fuss, motivated less by concern than pride and unexamined insecurities.

Now, I'm not saying that good, sincere parents who have a genuine disagreement with teachers have to just keep their opinions to themselves. But there's a big difference between, "Hey, I had a couple concerns and was wondering if you could give me your point of view," and "You're pushing your extreme leftist agenda and trying to make my son/daughter into an ultra-liberal/gay/lesbian/terrorist/terrorist-sympathizing anti-capitalist hippy and you should be fired/burned at the stake!"

Here, I'm not focusing on that New Jersey school in particular, since I obviously wasn't at the meetings to gauge the level of discourse, but on the subject of book-banning in general. I doubt many schools ban books for kicks; they do it because the board members and teachers and principals are getting angry, semi-incoherent phone calls and emails at all hours, and angry the-world-is-ending editorials are showing up in the local paper.

"But wait," someone might say, "what if an assigned book actually does encourage some kind of amoral behavior? Do we really want that kind of trash being read by impressionable youths? Wouldn't that march our whole society one step closer to the precipice of disaster?"

Answer: calm down.

Consider Mein Kampf, probably one of the vilest books ever written. Are there bad people who read that book for inspiration? Sure. But would the average "impressionable youth" be corrupted by it? No. Hatred and bigotry, like basic stupidity, are the anti-thesis of self-reflection, contemplation, and maturity. Put another way, bigots are stupid, and almost as a rule, stupid people don't read books, let alone understand them. Bigots have to be spoon-fed their daily portion of malice and fear, which is why they're almost always drawn to some charismatic jackass who cherry-picks passages from a religious or patriotic text, ignores the rest, and convinces a bunch of lonely cast-offs to give him their bodies, futures, and credit card numbers. But again, I digress.

My point is that we have much less to fear from a book... any book... than, say, the music our kids listen to or the movies and TV shows they watch, and quite frankly, I don't think we need to be afraid of those, either. Besides that, good art, real art, should shake people up. People need to be kicked out of their comfort zone once in awhile. 90% of education and maturity consists of getting people to question their beliefs and really reflect on them, even if they wind up holding the same views by the end. Because at least they've thought about it, they've appreciated (at least a little) the complexity of any given issue, and that kind of recognition is our best weapon against the kind of ignorance that would encourage book-banning over book-reading (or book-debating) in the first place.


  1. This is about the best essay I have read in months. Well, not 'about.' It simply is the best essay I have read in months.

  2. Thanks, Justin! I appreciate that. I tend to go off on random rants sometimes.

  3. That was an excellent random rant. Very well done!

  4. that was amazing i'm a high school student and i'm reading Tweak right now its an amazing book, graphic but an eye opener, into things that you grow up sheltered from