Today’s book bans could be more dangerous than those of the past

Last year, Texas State Representative Matt Krause (right) made national news when he released a list of more than 800 books he wants to ban from schools and libraries in carry, inspiring conservative school districts across the country to step up their own efforts. The majority of these books feature characters who, like many young Americans, are people of color, LGBTQ, or both. Nationally, we are experiencing what many educators, librarians and journalists have rightly called an unprecedented wave of censorship.

Of course, this isn’t the first time politicians and citizens have come together to ban the books. During the Cold War, Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) and his allies waged various censorship campaigns, with some Americans even participating in book-fueled bonfires. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, political leaders and mobilized parents, along with conservative organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Legion, removed “subversive” books from library shelves and stores and intimidated librarians, teachers and store managers to prevent them from stocking them.

But beyond a shared concern, the book banning campaigns of the Cold War and those of today differ significantly in strategy and effect. Censorship of McCarthy-era books was part of a much larger coordinated campaign that used federal and state governments to restrict other “subversive” arts, including film and television. And these efforts were international. In fact, one of the most successful efforts was the removal of books from overseas libraries, a network of American libraries under the jurisdiction of the State Department that served as an arm of cultural diplomacy.

But through it all, children’s literature has often escaped the notice of censors and, in fact, has become more diverse and focused more on young teenagers as an audience, anticipating the genre we now call ” literature for young adults”.

Indeed, McCarthy-era book bans often focused on mass-adopted textbooks as the easiest way to control what students read. They were primarily concerned with two issues: anti-communism and race. Often the two went hand in hand, with civil rights activists being accused of holding communist beliefs. Textbooks, especially social studies textbooks, that were critical of capitalism, economic equality, or the health of American democracy were removed from classrooms throughout the 1950s, and their publication was sometimes stopped altogether. .

The truth about the history teaching wars of 2022

After McCarthy’s fall and as civil rights campaigns grew in the 1960s, censors relaxed their standards in northern states when it came to race. Yet thanks to powerful textbook commissions and school boards, books that challenged segregation remained unprintable in the American South. Northern textbooks that depicted children of different races were published there in “whitewashed” versions, devoid of any reference or illustration of black Americans. While Detroit kids began to meet Dick and Jane’s black counterparts, Larry and Debbie, New Orleans kids continued to read only about white kids.

Parents everywhere were less likely to object to books that were part of their own education than to newly published textbooks written by liberal college professors they had never heard of. Thus, students in grades 7 through 12 continued to read novels in English class (“Silas Marner”, “Great Expectations”, and “The Red Badge of Courage” were the three most commonly taught), as well as plays and poetry. High school students read “Macbeth” and “Julius Caesar” more than any other literary work. In other words, teaching teenage literature consisted of literary classics steeped in familiar civic and ethical messages—about industry, integrity, and self-sufficiency—that many of the students’ parents had also read. when they were in school.

But the over-emphasis on textbooks, combined with an often traditional literature curriculum, actually created a space in which liberal writers could flourish. Take Langston Hughes, for example. When Hughes was interviewed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953, he had just published his juvenile book “The First Book of Negroes”. and was about to start his “Famous Negroes” series, both of which advanced ideas about black achievement and racial equity for the age group we now call “tweens.”

Even as the State Department ordered the America House library in Berlin to burn or suppress Hughes’ poetry for his subversive ideas on race and capitalism in the early 1950s, he continued to write juvenile biographies containing many of the same ideas that flew under the censorship radar and opened young Americans’ eyes to racism. Works like “The First Book of the Negroes” shaped many young readers’ thinking about democracy and civil rights – as confirmed by the letters teenagers wrote to writers like Hughes.

This trajectory was also true for other writers. While some publishing houses have ended their relationships with criticized authors, many – including Knopf, Harpers and Golden Books – have published books that challenged political and scientific orthodoxies. Censors were obsessed with monitoring what teachers now call ‘class texts’ or ‘whole class readings’, but students could still access an ever-widening range of books on their own. newly written. And they did.

The right has long tried to impose its vision on American education

What we experience today is in many ways radically different due to a key historical intervention: the creation of young adult literature as a genre over the past 40 years. According to the recent PEN “Banned in the USA” report, of the 1,145 titles pulled from school libraries or classrooms from July 2021 to March 2022, almost half were books for young adults. Of the 10 most contested books in 2021, all but three have been published since 2015. At the same time, sales of LGBTQ young adult literature have surged over the past two years.

Yet few teachers own classroom sets of Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer” or “George“, a fact guided by curricular standards, the economy of textbooks and the frequent discomfort of teachers with the teaching of texts. Instead, the most frequently challenged books are those that students read of their own accord, even if they access them through a school or classroom library. Bans target books that young Americans want to to read, not texts that a teacher tells them to read.

As a result, teachers and librarians have once again found themselves in the crosshairs, even as today’s campaigns are more truly an attack on adolescents’ right to read.

They represent a different kind of policing: a kind that is in many ways far more personal and, potentially, more damaging. This is not only because of the nature of what is prohibited, but also because of how and why students seek out these books, which is often for their own enjoyment and edification. Killing that impulse in young readers is something the costs of which could also be unprecedented.

This essay is the third in the Freedom to Learn series sponsored by PEN America, providing historical context to the controversies surrounding free expression in education today.

Comments are closed.