Book bans are dangerous. Curating age-appropriate school material is not.
Book bans have been a real problem in history, typically by totalitarian governments — whether Marxist, fascist, theocratic, or otherwise. But parents who don’t want their young children given explicit tutorials on how to practice the latest sexual fads are not Robespierres in training. They just want the bare minimum of decency and common sense applied when schools choose which reading materials to provide.
You’d be excused for thinking otherwise if you followed only progressive media and social media influencers though. Popular Twitter personality Jess Piper warned her followers, for example, that while she hates fear mongering and hyperbole, “Nazis didn’t start with camps — they started with books.”
Locally, mainstream media organizations across North Carolina (WUNC, Border Belt Independent, The Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer, Blue Ridge Public Radio, WBTV, WFDD, WHQR, and WRAL) joined together this month to release a piece on the danger of book bans in our state.
The piece does not go into detail about any of the explicit sexual content that parents tend to actually complain about. Instead, it just frames the whole issue as about a handful of parents who oppose books on those of diverse backgrounds, like the single instance where a parent complained about a book on Islam in Robeson County.
The article makes sure to also note that there is a Parents Bill of Rights being debated at the legislature, insinuating that these allegedly closed-minded parents may soon be given even more power over their children’s education.
The American Library Association has tracked the reasons for recent book challenges, and as you can see below, they found that the biggest concern among parents, by far, is about sexually explicit material.
If your first instinct is to assume that the parents are unhinged and freaking out about a book where two kids briefly kiss, I challenge you to research the three most “banned” books — “Gender Queer,” “Lawn Boy,” and “All Boys Aren’t Blue” — all of which contain sexually explicit scenes involving children.
Consider “Lawn Boy,” published by Chapel Hill, North Carolina’s Algonquin Books. The book includes pre-pubescent boys giving each other oral sex in the bushes outside church youth group, described in detail. The author, Jonathan Evison, wrote a response, saying that the book wasn’t intended for kids, but he’s still proud to have ended up on the Banned Books list:
My protagonist, Mike, has a sexual experience at a youth group meeting at the age of ten with another ten-year-old boy… There is graphic language in this scene, which depicts sexual acts. It is worth noting that the book, which was intended for an adult audience, found some crossover success due in part to winning an Alex Award from the ALA’s Young Adult Library Services Association for “books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18″. In addition to the aforementioned sexual passages, Lawn Boy was found to have contained “44 f*cks and 42 sh*ts,” and I would argue that not one of them was wasted.
The other books being excluded have very similar themes, as they involved young children in explicit sex scenes. Because many of these are graphic novels, there are also very explicit pictures that accompany the stories. The fact that the sexual acts in all three books are homosexual is supposed to show that people are only complaining because they are “homophobic.” But any parent worth their salt won’t want ANY images of sexual acts being given to their children, especially by adults, even more especially by adults fighting not to have to disclose discussions about sex to parents.
A school is not “banning” a book by excluding it from a reading list or a library book shelf. There is limited space, and no book is owed a place. Schools are creating a very curated catalogue of books out of all existing books. They should prioritize books that will be most beneficial to the students. When they include some books, that by definition means not including others. Of course, pornographic material should be the first thing excluded.
Actual book bans
When we talk about the danger of book bans, though, we are talking about attempts to limit the spread of ideas in a given society — not parents’ attempts to prevent sexually explicit material from being given to their children. For example, when the Nazis rose in Germany, they burned books by Jewish authors and books with views that contradicted Nazi ideology. On May 10, 1933, alone, Nazis in Berlin burned around 25,000 books they deemed dangerous to society.
In the Soviet Union, “Libraries were used as tools for Soviet party propaganda to promote ‘the spirit of the ideas of socialism and communism.’ In the time of Lenin and Stalin the libraries in the Soviet Union were repeatedly purged of all books deemed ‘harmful’ to society.”
In 1923, Lenin’s wife personally banned “Plato, Descartes, Kant, the Gospels, the Koran, the Talmud, Carlyle, Tolstoy and William James.” By 1927, around 60% of all books had been banned. Between 1930 and 1932, an additional 60% of those remaining books were banned, leaving libraries largely empty.
The 1953 book “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury depicted a world where firemen burned books rather than put out fires. Bradbury wrote in response to all the totalitarian movements in the 20th century that spent their time burning books to control the minds of their populations.
The purpose of books
While Nazis, Marxists, and other murderous movements tend to see books as propaganda tools, in free societies, they are a means of liberating the mind by thinking the thoughts of the greatest minds who have ever lived. Frederick Douglass, who had once been a slave, said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”
Rather than offering one idea, generally a very new and utopian one, like totalitarians do, you offer citizens the classics. The classics contain the thoughts that endured after generations of trial and error.
“The books are to remind us what asses and fool we are,” the retired professor Faber told the protagonist in Fahrenheit 451. “The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book.”
Someone who can absorb the wisdom of all their ancestors will not have to repeat their trials. However, those who insist on burning the lessons of the past likely will.
This is not what’s happening in American schools though. All civilized societies shield children from sexually explicit material. There are laws currently on the books to do just that, and they pose no danger to the free exchange of ideas in the greater society. Parents complaining about sexual material are not burning the lessons of history to advance some utopian vision. It appears they are trying to do the opposite, pulling a vital lesson on protecting the innocence of the young from the fires of supposed progress.