Reviews | To ban or not to ban: the debate on books — Observatory


Censorship of materials in libraries and school curricula is not new, but with the rise of critical race theory and queer pedagogy in the classroom, the debate over which books should be accessible to students and which shouldn’t is in fashion again. Earlier this year, author Art Spiegelman protested the decision of a school district in Tennessee (USA) to withdraw his graphic novel Maus of the program, a work on the relationship of Spiegelman with his father, a survivor of the Holocaust. The book portrays Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. Reasons given for disputing the distribution of this book in schools are that it includes nude images and profane language. Rulings like this open up a needed conversation about whether these elements can be avoided altogether in telling the true story of the Holocaust, reminding us of the ethical, historical, and emotional value of never forgetting such an episode.

Understanding the historical roots, causes, and personal cost to those who lived through this historic moment and how it continues to impact generations of affected families is the purpose of books that bring such learnings to children and young people. Books about slavery and the experiences of African Americans, immigrants, and LGBTQ minorities have similar goals. Why remove the books that come from these communities to tell their stories? Why attach importance to an obscene word or uncomfortable content to justify censorship instead of conversation and learning?

The Library Elephant

It is essential to acknowledge and validate concerns that topics or content may not be suitable for children of certain ages. However, there is a difference between being clear on this point of judgment and simply removing books from all school curricula regardless of the age of the students. It is understandable that the experiences related by authors such as Charles Dickens, Herman Hesse or Albert Camus are not suitable for primary school children. We also realize that removing them from the school catalog entirely would cut off access for teenage students, who should have the opportunity to ask questions and generate the conversations that the works of these authors spark. Yet there is little effort or debate to remove these authors from school libraries. But what if an author wants to talk about the changes of puberty? About racism? Of people’s lives outside of heteronormativity?

According to the American Library Association, from 2018 to 2019, most of the censored books included LGBTQ elements or themes. The ten most contested books of 2020 dealt with African American history, diversity and racism. Books with historical plots written by people of color are particularly vulnerable to censorship because they often depict historical moments that are difficult to address in a more socially conscious climate. The same goes for works of non-fiction that describe the origin and impact of social imbalances on minorities.

Less censorship, more conversations

There is a direct correlation between the topics of censored books and the conversations parents dread having with their children. The idea that censorship is seen as an easy way to avoid these discussions is a serious problem.

In the literature on racism, one of the strongest arguments for restriction is to protect children from content that causes them anxiety or stress. Another is that learning about racial discrimination causes children to feel shame, guilt for being white, inferiority if they belong to a racial minority, an unpatriotic attitude feelings, or social divisions in the classroom. When books or courses deal with topics related to sex education, the argument for the restriction is also to protect minors from age-inappropriate information and that families should have the right to decide when and how to start sex education for their children. There is a constant conversation about the moral dilemma of this view.

We can ban books that spark the conversations we don’t want to have with kids about race and gender. We may also endeavor to create policies to ensure that young children will not be exposed to content that they are not ready to handle. But what we can’t do is make the realities portrayed in these books go away, or prevent children or teenagers from encountering those realities at some point in their lives.

When we choose to censor rather than discuss, we suppress conversations that children need to develop fundamental tools that will help them understand the world around them or even themselves. The absence of these spaces for dialogue has a significant negative impact on many young students, especially those belonging to social minorities.

“I ignored my sexuality for a very long time. I think as a young girl, if a book had shown me that this is a life that can be lived, I would have had a lot more peace and accepted my bisexuality,” commented Gabrielle Izu, a student at James E. Taylor High School in Houston, Texas. The restriction in libraries and classrooms of topics related to racial, sexual and gender identities is a deep and personal issue. This is also true for many students in this neighborhood who have felt their perspective and right to visibility erased from their educational space. Thus commented Gabriel for the Texas Grandstandworking with students committed to taking charge of their learning and immersing themselves in difficult conversations, a position that many adults find difficult to undertake.

How we approach education from an adult-centered perspective speaks volumes about what we need to question and assess to be better educators, whether at home or in school. When it comes to education and race, the problem is not that children are given reading material that causes them the shame of being white or the inferiority of being a minority. The problem is that adults don’t teach them that the historical past and its social context provide opportunities to recognize and learn, not to be ashamed or depressed; the adults did not learn it themselves. Moreover, when the subject is sex education, perhaps the key is to understand that dialogue, critical thinking and empathy will always be better teaching resources than silence.

Translation by Daniel Wetta

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