You may have heard that conservative parent groups are banning books. From the Pulitzer-prize winning graphic novel Maus, to seemingly anything that addresses LGBT themes, such groups are challenging their inclusion in libraries and on curricula. In fact, the American Library Association (ALA) lamented a record number of book “bans” in 2022.
Well, I spent years as an English teacher, spending my days reading books with kids. These aren’t book bans. This isn’t a “culture war” debate over censorship, but an inevitable, even healthy argument that boils down to which books, for which reason, at what age, and in what venue.
Calling each of these decisions a “ban” blurs categorical distinctions that deserve to be taken seriously. There’s a difference between a school switching one book out for another in its curriculum, a librarian removing a book because it’s outdated or age-inappropriate, a major company like Target or Amazon de-platforming a book, and the federal government black-bagging dissidents found with samizdat materials. The latter two may in fact be bans—they limit everyone’s access to a text—but anyone who wants to can easily go down the street and buy for themselves plenty of books not in school libraries.
In reality, politicians and activists on both left and right engage in restricting access to books. If anything, the left engages in broader censorship. The pressure on Target to pull Irreversible Damage from its shelves and Amazon to remove of When Harry Became Sally came from the left, and such actions restricted more people’s access to these books than the decision to pull Gender Queer from a handful of school libraries. But even in these cases, it’s neither illegal to own a copy nor impossible to obtain one. Neither were “banned.”
In reality, even free societies are constantly engaged in little acts of censorship. Barnes and Noble places certain genres in the back and covers certain glossy magazines with opaque boards. Theaters restrict access to violent movies. Local ordinances determine what shops can go where.
Consider a far smaller venue: my own former classroom, where I regularly included Frederick Douglass’s autobiography in the course of the year. However, its brutal descriptions of beatings, rapes, and murders proved too visceral for twelve-year-olds to handle. I replaced it with A Raisin in the Sun, allowing my class to both cover America’s history of oppression and read a play. Did I ban Douglass’s autobiography? No one would reasonably suggest so.
And yet that is precisely what a district in Tennessee did with Maus; it merely took it off the curriculum. Perhaps the most controversial and even unjustifiable book “ban” from last year, it is really the quintessential example. A handful of major media outlets compared its removal from a curriculum to Nazi book burnings and holocaust denial. But the problem isn’t that they “banned” the book. They didn’t. Rather, they took it off for a questionable reason—vulgarity—with no recommended replacement such as The Diary of Anne Frank.
There are countless reasons to include or exclude a book in a library and on a curriculum: difficulty, genre, age appropriateness, thematic variety, aesthetic value, and historical significance, among others. Tastes change. Societal values change. And so curricula will change. The books our students read in school shape their character, form their worldview, and more broadly inculcates our national values. What our students read is no flippant affair.
Calling such changes “bans” stymies this essential discussion. A choice between The Diary of Anne Frank or Maus raises interesting questions. Are graphic novels equal in literary merit to traditional texts? What effect on literacy development would each genre have? How and when do we expose our children to the horrors in human history? Can we have these arguments civilly still?
It’s a debate that goes back millennia. In ancient Athens, Socrates and his interlocutors argued over what passages of Homer to include and avoid in the education of children. They knew that what children read forms their minds and characters. The heroes they lionize or villains they condemn will shape the kind of individuals they themselves will strive to be. Valorize Achilles and we may find our students rash and blindly ambitious.
The average high school English curriculum covers anywhere from six to twelve books in a year, and the typical school library houses 10–15 thousand books. The inclusion and exclusion of this or that book is unavoidable. It’s basic curation and curricular construction. And we must have some limiting principles. No one would want a school shooter’s manifesto to provide the anchor text of a ninth grade English unit nor copies of Maxim to furnish the library in a kindergarten classroom.
Perhaps the more controversial question is “who decides?” The ALA doesn’t decry teachers or school boards banning books, but rather parental “censorship groups.” No one questions a librarian chucking an antiquated board book from the ‘60s. They bristle at parents dictating that the librarian do so.
Surely, some of these parent groups’ demands have been outlandish. Most recently, several organizations criticized a manga series, Assassination Classroom. The book is sophomoric—think Captain Underpants for high schoolers—but hardly nefarious or vulgar. Conversely, many complaints are understandable. An NBC article claimed that LGBT themes outraged parents but made no mention of what actually caused offense: graphic depictions of oral sex and masturbation.
But again, this is arguing over a book’s merit, not who decides. In short, parents should have some say in their child’s education. Most schools are public institutions, after all. If parents want to protest a book with sexually explicit images at a school board, I welcome it. That’s what a democratic, representative political process looks like. The school board and teachers are then welcome to acquiesce to or reject their demands. Were parents protesting over insufficient funding or school safety, I think the press would treat these parental groups differently.