School Climate & Safety

What Did We Learn From This Year’s Banned Books Week?

By Ross Brenneman — September 27, 2013 2 min read
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In lieu of the traditional “Absolute Best School Climate Blogging (This Week),” I thought it would be fun to commemorate the end of this year’s Banned Books Week. The American Library Association initiative turned 31 this year.

Here’s the list of the most-challenged books of the last decade. To be fair, #1 is about a tortured, genocidal maniac out to murder a boy.

But let’s look at Banned Books Week from another angle.

In an Education Week Commentary published Monday, special education teacher David Knight argues that schools should discuss the death of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager shot and killed in February 2012 by George Zimmerman. The racially charged trial, and subsequent acquittal of Zimmerman, produced heavy backlash over what many saw as a tenuous-at-best defense.

Schools tend to shy away from topics that involve sensitive subjects—race, sex, religion, anything vaguely smelling of politics. Why wouldn’t they? “Tax dollars are going to teach my children about this nonsense,” say many parents, who insist that such things should be reserved for home. And that’s not an inherently flawed stance—parents might not be able to teach algebra and sentence diagramming, but the sensitive stuff, well, that’s part of what parenting is.

Yet viewpoints form one way or another, and being exposed to the richness of diverse thoughts that youths can often only find in schools offers a powerful starting place. How, for example, will a Christian student learn what it’s like to be Muslim from his parents? They’ll have the Internet.

“If schools stand silent while whole communities suffer, rage, and protest, then they close themselves off from important democratic topics and leave students underprepared for an increasingly diverse America,” Knight writes.

If topics were all easy to talk about, people wouldn’t always be calling for national conversations. (We need to have a national conversation about having national conversations.) How, Knight argues, can dialogues form when schools demur?

And that, I think, is the spirit behind Banned Books Week. This year’s installment came on the heels of a prominent case in North Carolina, where a parent objected to the teaching of Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. The book, published in 1952, delves into racial themes, as well as rape, and the parent found it to be “too much.” After initially voting to ban the book, the county school board reversed itself following sweeping nationwide condemnation.

But even in schools that plaster the walls with pages from Toni Morrison novels, book banning happens in spirit when a school discourages conversations about current events, whether Trayvon Martin, or the debt ceiling, or Pope Francis’ remarks on homosexuality, or, sure, Common Core State Standards.

Book banning is meant to impede the spread of an idea, but not talking about non-banned ideas doesn’t help enrich anyone’s viewpoint, either.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.