Sept. 25 marks the start of Banned Books Week, an annual celebration of academic freedom and students’ rights to read. It is an important occasion to observe, but this year, especially, it should serve as an invitation to reflect on not just what young Americans read but also the ways in which they are encouraged to think and talk about books.
Students’ right to read was never in greater peril than during the 1950s. In audacious displays, parents in Oklahoma and Alabama took to burning “subversive” textbooks. Special-interest groups across the nation effectively pressured schools and libraries to remove trade and textbooks that they claimed might poison students’ minds.
The National Council of Teachers of English, for which I am the council historian, waged its own battle in response. In 1953, its primer for teachers on how to resist public pressure to ban books, Censorship and Controversy, urged that during “a time of tension and fear,” it was vital that teachers not become prey to “the rise of un-American tactics in public discussion and the violence of selfish interests.”
In a Cold War culture that often prized conformity and opacity, teachers were on the front lines of keeping American schools truly free.
That defense against book banning was important but also obscured the larger problem at hand: teachers’ avoidance of anything controversial or political in the first place. Public education is supposed to help students understand and participate in the wider world, but too often, teachers have learned to evade anything potentially contentious. Parents might have called for books to be banned, but many teachers were shying away from assigning controversial books in the first place.
This was certainly the case with The Catcher in the Rye, one of the most contested books of the 1950s and 1960s. When the NCTE endorsed it for the high school classroom in 1962, teachers roundly rejected the suggestion. “I would not consider teaching it regardless of the community’s feeling,” explained one Minnesota teacher, echoing others. “My students’ reaction would be one of embarrassment and bafflement.”
This problem is not unique to the Cold War or to English teachers. In the recent book The Case for Contention, Jonathan Zimmerman and Emily Robertson show that teachers’ willingness to address controversial subjects has waxed and waned over time, but it has been consistently low since the 1980s. That is often the case, they argue, because teachers are not sure how to help students work their way through questions that lack consensus or what the ends of democratic debate should be.
Classroom work can often reduce potentially complex stories to easy truisms or didactic messages."
The problem, then, is not just a matter of the topics or texts we teach but with how we teach them. Even as reading lists and textbooks have become more inclusive, many classroom conversations remain stuck in the past.
Take, for example, the ever popular yet frequently contested To Kill a Mockingbird. How many teachers encourage students to debate the adequacy of character Atticus Finch’s moralism? How many ask how the persistent racial and economical segregation of schools today make it difficult to truly “walk in another person’s shoes?” How many challenge their students to consider how the courts and criminal-justice system have changed (and not changed) in the 80 years since the novel was set? The book raises those questions precisely because it continues to be presented to students as a straightforward lesson in overcoming prejudice.
Instead, classroom work can often reduce potentially complex stories to easy truisms or didactic messages that compel little questioning or introspection. Students learn to lionize Atticus without considering how privilege works in the novel and in the world. They accept at face value Atticus’ claim that the Ku Klux Klan never took in the fictional Maycomb, Ala., even though it was exactly the kind of town that was ripe for racial violence.
In missing out on more nuanced and complex conversations, students fail to learn that it is possible to question a book and value it still. And they lose an opportunity to develop a more multifaceted understanding of civic life and their role in it.
Our current political period shares several qualities with the early Cold War, including a testing of democratic institutions, an embittered public discourse, and a regression in civil rights. Teachers know better than anyone how aware youths are of these developments and how potentially powerless they can feel in response. School should act as a counterweight that draws students in, teaches them how to think through debates, and empowers them to participate in ways that are rational, intelligent, productive, and democratic. Educators realized this 60 years ago. It is just as important today.
Banned Books Week can and should provide educators with an opportunity to consider the books we teach and the important conversations we want those books to spur. But we shouldn’t feel too comfortable or self-congratulatory. Celebrating academic freedom is about more than the right to teach texts that might offend some; it is about teachers’—and parents’—responsibility in helping students wrestle with difference and complexity without becoming offended.