Book Bans on the Rise, and Consistently Counterproductive, Prof Says
As school board meetings erupt into shouting matches, an increasing number of states and school districts are moving to ban books. A North Carolina school board decided that Dear Martin, a young adult novel about a Black high school student who is racially profiled, could no longer be an assigned 10th grade text after one parent complained about language and sexual references. Similarly, a Tennessee school board voted unanimously to ban Maus, the Pulitzer prize-winning graphic novel about one family’s Holocaust experience, from the eighth grade classroom because of eight curse words and one panel depicting a nude woman.
A recent report compiled by Pen America, a non-profit that supports freedom of expression in literature, points to a “rapid acceleration” of book censorship in U.S. schools. Over the past school year, 1,648 titles were banned by districts in 32 states.
Though there has been a significant uptick in book censorship attempts, the arguments to ban books are as old as books themselves. They are also as flimsy as a century-old dime novel.
Shireen Campbell, professor of English, director of the Writing Center and acting chair of Educational Studies, frequently teaches a course in which students study specific cases of book controversies.
“One question is at the root of all these arguments: Should books show the world as we would like it to be or the way we believe it is?” Campbell said. “Many book-banning arguments are driven by the idea that books should represent an ideal world. Of course, that “ideal” often excludes large numbers of people or ignores conflicting points of view.”
According to her, most attempts to ban books or censor material are not only unsuccessful but also genuinely counterproductive. Banned books frequently become more popular due to the negative attention. The “Streisand Effect” played out just a few weeks ago as Maus shot to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list in response to the McMinn County School board decision.
Campbell walked us through three book controversies to illuminate and deconstruct the urge to ban books.
Are books endorsements?
First published in 1997, Captain Underpants follows the adventures of two fourth-grade class clowns who hypnotize their mean principal. In the process, their comic book character superhero, Captain Underpants, becomes real.
“Full of potty humor, petty adults, and sight gags, children who struggle to read or dislike reading frequently credit these books with bringing them into improved literacy and a reading habit.”
Popularity brings controversy. The series received the top ranking in 2012 and 2013 on the challenges list by ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom for reasons including offensive language, unsuited for age group, and violence.
According to Campbell, these Captain Underpants objections reflect two assumptions:
- Books should show an “ideal” world.
- Books that show less than “ideal” behavior or attitudes, such as children who eat junk food, lie, or make fun of adults, endorse what they show and will encourage readers to embrace that content.
“People conflate what is in a book with the idea that the actions are being endorsed,” Campbell said. “We read literature in which people behave in problematic ways all the time. Showing something doesn’t mean endorsing it. When people read Macbeth, or see the play, we understand why Macbeth murders, but we also understand that he deteriorates morally in a quest for power.”
Can books violate student conduct codes?
The 1951 classic The Catcher in the Rye tracks a couple of tumultuous days in the life of Holden, a rich, troubled kid who has flunked repeatedly out of prep schools and who sees the adult world as full of “phonies” and hypocrites. The first-person narrator is a deeply troubled, idealistic kid; it is clear to any reader that Holden is lost, endangered and mentally unstable.
This novel, like many on Radcliffe’s Top 100 Books of the 20th century, has been widely acclaimed and often attacked. In Glynn County, Georgia, in 2001, a school board member objected to Catcher in the Rye because profanity in the novel contradicted the school district’s character education program.
“This argument leads down a road where huge numbers of books would be banned,” Campbell said. “The decision to get books with ‘bad words’ out of schools snowballed until the district realized that if they purged every such book, they would have to remove multiple classics, including the works of Shakespeare.”
Do books really influence behavior?
Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis recounts her experiences growing up in 1970s and 1980s Iran, through the Islamic Revolution and the war with Iraq. The book has been translated into more than 40 languages and received multiple awards. Satrapi spoke at Davidson in 2014 to a sell-out crowd in Duke Family Performance Hall.
In March 2013, Chicago Public Schools administrators abruptly pulled the book from some classrooms because of torture scenes. Ultimately the book was approved for use in grade 11 classrooms, removed from grade seven classrooms, and reviewed for use in grade eight through 10 classrooms.
In 2014, objections in Oregon and Texas as well as Illinois continued, with details revealing that some parents didn’t want their high school students being assigned a book about Muslims. Reading about the “other,” whether of a different religion, race, ethnicity, or point of view, it seems, is dangerous because it might make readers more understanding of that other.
So, do books have the influence ascribed to them?
“Research strongly suggests that behaviors such as teen drinking, smoking and sexual activity are influenced by many factors, ranging from parental behavior and home environment to media inputs (advertising in mass media specifically) and peer influence. Books, however, are not on the list,” Campbell said.
“Yet, would-be censors are right to fear the power of a book. Scholarship strongly correlates reading, which allows us to share experiences of fictional characters, to how we understand and project the mental states of people around us. Books do engage readers in the lives of others and suggest other modes of being. In this sense, books can make us more open.
“We can roll our eyes at what seem to be foolish objections and find comfort in knowing how often such complaints fail,” Campbell said. “In instances where a ban holds, often communities rally and offer alternate conversations, such as the free course Davidson Professor Scott Denham has subsequently designed and is offering to any eighth grader or high school student in McGinn County, where the book was banned.”
But even when book complaints in a specific school or community lead to naught, and they often do, the ultimate impact is negative, Campbell said.
Will new teachers stick to curriculum with “tried and true” books rather than try new content? Do libraries on fixed budgets replace materials that disappear when patrons deliberately take and lose content they find objectionable?