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Reading & Literacy Opinion

A Student’s Plea: Don’t Shield Me From Problematic Conversations

By Eilise McLaughlin — August 27, 2019 2 min read
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In my English class this year, we read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. It is a book about Belgian imperialism in Africa from the perspective of a European man.

The book is complex and inspires a lot of debate. Upon finishing the novella, my class had a discussion about whether or not the book’s depiction of colonialism was racist. The consensus was that it was, but that left us all with the question, “Should this book still be read in schools?”

If we do not take the time to look back on our mistakes, we could find ourselves repeating them.

I spent a good couple of days thinking about my answer to this question. Of course, it is hard to read a book where ignorance toward other cultures is obvious, but did that mean we should not read it? I read a few articles about the book, some in favor of continuing to teach the book in schools, some adamantly against, and I came to a conclusion: Yes, the book is racist. Yes, it does not give the respect to the native Africans that it should. And, no, we should not stop reading it.

If we as a society choose to shield young people from controversial books, how will we understand what was once considered acceptable? Throughout history, major injustices have been righted or at least brought to light. If we do not take the time to look back on our mistakes, we could find ourselves repeating them. This is not only true of our history. We need to see multiple perspectives on current events as well. The only way to properly form an opinion is to have all the information. This can sometimes mean being exposed to unpleasantness or controversies.

This is a paradox of sorts because in order to resolve any controversy, one must dive into it. For example, at my school, boys’ and girls’ soccer teams were not treated equally in game announcements and field time. One way for a student to avoid this situation entirely is to enroll in an all-female school. But this does not fix the problem; it leaves it for other future students. My solution was to talk to the coaches and administration until we got both boys’ and girls’ games announced, and we both got to use the game field equally.

Reflecting on other vexing content I’ve been exposed to over time, I realize I have read books that are demeaning to women, seen movies with racist undertones, and so much more. I have asked myself who I would trust to sort or censor this information for me, no name has came to mind.

It is important for individuals to determine the issues that spark a passion in them. My best friends were exposed to the speakers who survived school shootings, and together they founded the March For Our Lives chapter at my school. Without witnessing these sometimes controversial speeches, they never would have started making strides for change in our community.

Sometimes being exposed to controversy is the only way that people can make the world change. It is the best way to learn from our mistakes, and no one else can make those decisions about what is or isn’t too controversial for us.

This essay was one of the four winning submissions in the “Think For Yourself” essay contest sponsored by Let Grow, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to childhood independence and resilience.

A version of this article appeared in the August 28, 2019 edition of Education Week as Don’t Shield Me From Problematic Conversations: A Student Speaks Out

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