Opinion Piece: The Liberation of Literature
Updated: Apr 11
By: Emma Parsons
The banning of books and literary texts dates back to the 17th century in the United States, when a book written by an ex-Puritan on the toxic culture of Puritanism was banned entirely from their community. Since then, our society has developed a proclivity towards the prohibition of books that mention/include “sensitive subjects.” These subjects often include race, sexual orientation, witchcraft, religion, politics, and/or generalized mature themes. In the modern era, the evolution of censorship has resulted in quick judgements; further resulting in rash decisions to ban potentially triggering material. New prohibition efforts can be seen through cancel culture on social media or the evolution of trigger warnings throughout a wide variety of public media.
With this societal “norm” of disregarding literary texts that do not conform with the public’s strict interpretation of what is acceptable for the young, impressionable mind; we have seen a change in not only the culture of society, but the culture of the classroom as well. With 49 percent of banned books falling under the young adult category, we see a trend of censorship specifically within the early to late teen years. This majorly affects children from middle school continuing on into high school, specifically in English-language based classes. Books commonly explored in public high schools across the country such as: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, Of Mice and Men, and The Catcher in the Rye have all been banned at some point, due to mature thematics. This poses the question, should these literary pieces be welcomed in a classroom setting, or even in society all together? During the 2021/2022 MHS school year this question was put into practice. A concerned parent reached out to the school administration in regards to a “questionable” novel being discussed in class.
Assistant principal, Laura Sigler, said, “I experienced one parent concerned about the use of the ‘N’ word in To Kill a Mockingbird. I encouraged the parent to reach out to her student’s teacher to discuss the concern. The parent and teacher had a great conversation, were able to work through the parent’s concerns, and the student was able to continue participating in the study of that novel.” She continued by sharing her personal outlook as an educator, “...Our job as educators is to teach students to think for themselves. If we ban books that are controversial we are taking that process away from them. We are dictating for them what is or is not appropriate rather than letting them determine it for themselves.”
The debate of exposure vs. preservation comes to mind as this quandary is evaluated. Many express a viewpoint revolving around informing youth of the potentially darker truths in life, as school is intended to prepare students for real world scenarios. Contrarily, a secondary viewpoint is shared that revolves around maintaining the innocence of students' minds and leaving the contentious subjects to parental figures’ discretion.
Mishawaka High School’s librarian, Angela Stillson shared her perspective on this topic, “As a librarian, this is an issue that I feel strongly about. Banning the expression of ideas and truths is not beneficial to any society. I have been fortunate enough to travel overseas to China and see how censored their books and other media are and I am glad that I live in America where people have the right to free speech and expression. As much as people want to compare our education systems with China, we are far better off because we expose our students to different points of view and we allow them to make up their own minds and think critically. If we ban books, we are taking away the ability for students to grow as citizens of the world.”
Another topic Stillson addressed involved awareness of the outside world and the importance of encouraging youth to be curious, “Literature is a reflection of what is going on in the world around the author. I always say that writers are influenced by their experiences and the events going on around them. These are not always ‘comfortable’ to people, but that does not mean the writer and their message does not have value and should not be read/studied. Students need to be exposed to diverse topics so that they can learn about the world around them, and they need to be exposed to controversial topics so that they can think critically about the world around them.”
Critical thinking is a key skill often explored throughout an individual's education. To delve into one's critical thinking skills though, one must first be able to evaluate the environment around them; with this comes exposure. Novels, poetry, and even music interpret the surrounding world and analyze it for their target audience. This creates a scenario where readers, viewers, or listeners can widen their universal understanding and knowledge through a safer and maintained method. By eliminating these methods through the prohibition of certain books, society is taking away a safer alternative to exposure.
When focusing on the specifics of banned books in the classroom, the First Amendments Rights of students are questioned. The case of Tinker v. Des Moines in 1969 led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that students do in fact maintain their First Amendment Rights when entering school or school based buildings. Therefore, this maintains their rights to the access of information through the vessel of their choice. With this ruling came the legal demands of educational workers ( principals, school board officials, superintendents, etc,) to act with the First Amendment Rights of their students specifically in mind. In the evaluation of this statement, one may see the hypocrisy revolving around limiting access to literary resources when legally obligated to allow access to information that can widen the horizon of a student's mind.
From picture books to world-renowned novels, this unsettling trend of censorship can be seen quite clearly. With 1,648 various books being banned across the United States, this generation faces a potential decline. Teachers now face controversy and backlash over lessons revolving around important topics that are necessary and appropriate for the grade level being taught. The future of literature is very unclear, but the power of the printed word shall prevail.