Public school book banning is back in the news.
Yes, I know; it’s an amazing development in an era in which every imaginable form of explicit violence, sex, and hate speech resides just seconds away at our children’s fingertips.
Research indicates that 95% of American teens have ready access to a smartphone and that more than 90% of kids play video games – more than 90% of which are rated E10+ or above contain violence. For heaven’s sake, a 2021 Northeastern University study found that “more than one-third of adolescents (ages 13 to 17) say they could gain access in less than five minutes to a loaded firearm kept in the home, and half could gain access in 60 minutes or less.”
Nonetheless, a small but noisy group of mostly conservative parents across the country have recently decided to make printed words found in books – books that reside in some public school libraries and that have, in some instances, been designated as assigned reading by professional educators – their new and top bête noire.
As NC Policy Watch education reporter Greg Childress detailed recently, one of the latest such controversies took place in January in Union County, where a widely acclaimed 28-year-old book about the lives of real young people involved in integrating public schools of Arkansas in the 1950’s entitled “Warriors Don’t Cry,” raised the ire of some parents and led a mom who opposed censorship to fear retribution against her child if she publicly identified herself while pushing back.
At around the same time, in western North Carolina’s Haywood County, the local school superintendent removed a book from a 10th grade English class – “Dear Martin,” a widely-respected book about racial discrimination at an Ivy League college, of which he had only read parts and about which he received a single complaint – because, he said, it contained too many swear words.
In Tennessee last month, “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, met a similar fate to “Dear Martin” for a similar reason.
Several similar controversies have targeted books featuring LGBTQ characters and themes.
And of course and not coincidentally, all these incidents come at a time of concerted effort by forces of the political right to stoke irrational white fears by cynically and relentlessly spreading absurd tales about Critical Race Theory – a heretofore obscure but compelling topic of graduate school-level research and discussion that links many aspects of modern inequality to America’s long and relentless history of racial discrimination.
According to this particular slice of paranoid, Fox News-driven mythology, there is a diabolical liberal plot afoot to shame and demoralize American white children by teaching CRT in our public schools.
The truth is that CRT is not taught in K-12 schools, but God forbid that little Justin or Jennifer might be inspired to reflect for a few moments on the less-than-honorable actions and inactions of their forbears with respect to such an important subject.
What’s ultimately most striking, however, about the right’s recent censorship campaigns is how sadly familiar and uninspired they are. Conservatives have, after all, been banning and burning books in attempts to resist boat-rocking forces of modernity in western civilization from the moment humans put ink to paper – whether it was the patriarchs of Antwerp a half-millennium ago, or the Gestapo-spurred mobs of 1930’s Germany.
The same is true of efforts to combat science, as well racial, religious, and cultural integration.
Galileo was punished by the Catholic Church for voicing the truth about the planet Earth’s place in the universe and John Scopes was prosecuted by the state of Tennessee for teaching about evolution.
Countless Americans have been terrorized or even murdered for the crime of seeking equal treatment and opportunity for those who are not white, straight, Christian males.
Simply put, human beings are predisposed to fear and resist change – especially when times are tough, and when they perceive themselves to be in positions of at least relative comfort and ascendance.
This is why so many modern school boards have been pilloried for permitting students to be exposed out-of-the-ordinary ideas in reading assignments – or for that matter, applying lifesaving and science-based public health practices in response to a global pandemic, or trying to break the vicious and debilitating patterns of racial and economic segregation that plague our state and nation.
And ultimately, this is why so many otherwise decent human beings are willing to deny the threat posed by the climate emergency, or cast their lot with mendacious scoundrels like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, or Vladimir Putin.
In short, fear of change, fear of “the other,” fear of difficult truths, and fear of the discomfort that usually accompanies exposure to all three, can serve as enormously powerful roadblocks to societal progress.
And this is why our future as a nation may well hinge on our collective ability overcome these fears and say ‘yes’ to more books, science, diversity, and discomfort in our schools.