A Study in Censorship

I have struggled this year to understand many things: the minority campaigns declaring their lives matter (of course they matter!), religious terrorism worldwide (I can’t even begin…), and Donald Trump (I *really* can’t even begin…). One issue that has been recurrent both personally and professionally is the idea and practice of censorship.

Early in the school year, I felt a strong pull to start a school book club. My idea was to have a Banned Book Club, which was born from the hope that students would be more intrigued by a book if it’d been banned. If they’re banned books, surely there must be something risqué in there! Maybe there’s even cussing! … sexual tension! …real-world, teenage problems! 

My superiors did not necessarily agree with my idea. It was suggested that “we” (meaning me) not focus on the negative “banned” aspect. I saw it as a marketing ploy to engage teenage literacy; they saw it as a campaign to encourage risky behavior (I think… I guess I still don’t quite understand the rationale). I decided they had a point, and even if it wasn’t flush with my opinion, I saw merit to the point. We started the book club, and we did read one banned book, The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and everyone loved it. We moved on to other books, and I saw that the “Banned Books” aspect of the club really would have been limiting after all.

But then I decided to teach a graphic novel, Persepolis, in my main course. It has been a banned text, too, but that wasn’t my motive for teaching it at all. Many of my students refuse to read, and the book is a graphic novel so I thought some would be engaged by the pictures. It’s a young girl’s (aged 9-14 in the book) depiction of her life during the Iranian revolution in the late 70s and early 80s. It. Is. Fantastic. Does it include war? Yes. Does it include teenage elements? Yes. Does it include another culture? Yes.

In my mind, this book is a cross-curricular dream. It teaches: genre, culture, history, and empathy.

While I ended up gaining the support of my administration on this text, I did receive word that there were “grumblings” about the book from parents and students. One student wrote in an anonymous class evaluation that her “mom got mad at [her] for reading a Muslim book.”

It’s not a Muslim book. The narrator isn’t Muslim; she lives under a repressive Islamic republic. And guess what? Now your child knows what that means. You’re welcome.

Relatedly, I recently learned online that a teacher from Marion County High School in Lebanon, Kentucky, is being attacked for placing John Green’s Looking for Alaska on an upper level reading list. The book is being described as “pornographic” and community members are calling for the teacher’s dismissal. (I must note that I don’t even remember the sex scene in the book…. so it was clearly memorable pornography.)

So where does that leave me, as a teacher and encourager of life long literacy? Well, it leaves me pretty confused. My school–among many–declares that we are preparing our students to become independent and critical thinkers, so I try to pander to that goal within the walls of my classroom.

But how can I do that when parents don’t believe critical thinking should include anything that includes war, sex, or real-world events? As parents and those responsible for teaching young people, I feel it is everyone’s responsibility to model and teach what we want from values at home, but also encourage and model empathy for others’ beliefs elsewhere.

Doesn’t anyone see how minority campaigns got started? They were treated hatefully for living outside the norm. Because others didn’t and do not understand. And religious terrorism? Donald Trump? is anyone seeing the connections? We cannot remove the distasteful parts of the world by blowing them up or building a wall; we must learn to teach and show tolerance for all belief systems, especially and most importantly those which differ from our own. The first step is not banning them. The first step is learning from them.

Parents, please help. Teachers, please teach. Administrators, please encourage tolerance. And everyone—have empathy.

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