Banned Books Week begins tomorrow
International Non-Violence Day

Book Challenging vs. Challenging Books

An essay on censorship and “book challenging” in schools for Beacon’s new blog would seem a pretty simple piece to write, considering the audience of book lovers and progressives. Narrow-minded right-wingers ban books; thoughtful, well-read people, people who read books published by Beacon Press, want freedom.

Recently, in a class I teach for future high school teachers at the University of San Francisco, a student caused me to think about the complexity of this issue.

We are all reading the same novel, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, in order to have a common text around which to build pedagogical discussions. Students keep journals for the class, and this student had a particularly thorny entry questioning my choice of text:

I am not one for censorship, especially when it comes to young adult education, but this novel stirs up mixed emotions that I am not sure are practical to teach.... Americans are groomed to glorify war. We watch war sequences in films, big budget ones like Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down. We read about wars in All Quiet on the Western Front and encourage our sons and daughters to trudge off to foreign countries to fight for things that they don’t even understand. I, myself, don’t understand.

That is why I feel that requiring students to read, interpret, and discuss war memoirs is questionably unethical.

While she’s right that this is a difficult subject to teach in high school, I would argue with the idea that depicting war is being pro-war. The Things They Carried, in my reading, is a desperate protest against the horrors of the American war in Vietnam. But, then again, The Iliad is also a dreadful meditation on the horrors of war, yet it is still remembered as a rousing war story.

When Ron Kovic (noted anti-war veteran and author of Born on the Fourth of July) volunteered for the army and found himself in Vietnam, he was only months out of high school. His commitment to the military was conditioned by his experiences in high school football, as well as by his ineffective and unreflective discussions in his English classes. We cannot protect young people from the world of violence: they live in it. We can only allow them to dig in, examine, reflect, and view different perspectives on violence.

Teaching is not simply downloading information into little heads; we bring up texts, stories, problems, issues of our culture and our times (and other cultures and times). Exposing kids to these things is not endorsing them; a good teacher does not propagandize students, left or right, but rather creates a discourse in the classroom.

My student brought up yet another tough scenario: what if a teacher decided to include Nabokov’s Lolita on the syllabus? Even many of us who oppose the book-challengers, have to wonder: Lolita? It’s a great book, no doubt, even as it is told through the voice of a narrator who is seriously messed up and a master manipulator to boot. But if I was department chair in a girls’ high school and a male teacher, say, proposed to incorporate Lolita—what would I say? Is it ever legitimate for a teacher’s choice to be challenged by administrators and parents?

The truth is you can’t divorce the structure from the booming, screaming, messy content, and a teacher may justifiably choose to leave this book off of the syllabus. But by shying away from tough subjects, are teachers really “protecting” kids?

The great educator Eric Rofes troubled this point in quite a revolutionary way in A Radical Rethinking of Sexuality and Schooling. Speaking of his own queer identity and his own childhood, he shattered the comfortable myth that children are asexual, innocent, living in a magic Disney world. This is something we can hardly mention, or imagine how to talk about, in constructing curriculum and lesson plans. But whether or not we choose to teach Lolita, we are not keeping the students from wondering and forming opinions about the issues in the book.

So let’s all agree: down with book banning. No more challenges to Beloved, Harry Potter, and the rest. But then come the harder questions: how and what do we teach, in a responsible, loving, and honest manner?

Rick Ayers blogs about politics at the Huffington Post. He is co-author (with Amy Crawford) of Great Books for High School Kids: A Teacher’s Guide to Books That Can Change Teens’ Lives, author of Studs Terkel’s Working, a Teaching Guide and co-creator (with students) of the Berkeley High Slang Dictionary.