Invariably, there will be parents who do no agree with a book that has been chosen for the course. In one case, a parent was adamant that her child was not going to read Lord of the Flies as the novel was deeply violent and disturbing. She hadn’t read it, but I couldn’t argue with her—I felt traumatized every time I taught the novel! Reading about the darkness of man’s heart twice a year is more than a little demoralizing.
On a larger scale, however, school boards have banned particular books because parents have complained about the content being inappropriate. Not wanting to upset parents, school officials have created restrictions on whether a book can be used in curriculum and or occupy a shelf in the library. In one situation the school was still permitted to have the book in the library, but it was not allowed to be on the shelf; it had to be behind the front counter. “Psst. I hear you have a copy of [insert banned book title here]. Can you set me up?”
I have even had parents who did not want their teens reading The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman which is a choice novel on a grade ten academic course at my school. His Dark Materials series has received international attention for its being banned in numerous Catholic school boards; it was blacklisted from classroom use and removed from bookshelves in school libraries. The main objection was and still is Pullman’s Atheist beliefs that are supposedly purported in the novel series. I have read the series and feel that although he has these beliefs the novel can be appreciated by all for its merit as a unique fantasy construct and a captivating story. Regardless of whether you disagree with Pullman’s perspective on religion, you can still appreciate the story. All the main literary elements—plot, setting, character, theme and symbolism—are worth studying.
Shakespeare’s controversial comedy, The Merchant of Venice, is also blacklisted in many school boards because of its anti-Semitic attitudes. That the Christians in the play treat Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, with great prejudice is certainly true; however, Shylock also gives an impassioned speech appealing to the sameness of all people, saying, “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?” (III.II.46-47). The end of the speech, which is an argument for why Shylock should take revenge on the Christian merchant Antonio, is not complimentary to either religion. Shylock justifies taking murderous revenge because he believes it is what a Christian would do! What is valuable in teaching this play is the dialogue that is produced as a result. Insights into the anti-Semitism during Shakespeare’s lifetime could also be examined.
I find it most disturbing that books would be banned because they contained a particularly offensive word. Words are just words. It’s how people use them that matters. One such novel, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, is a well-crafted story that is primarily focused on the prejudice against Black people in the American South during the Great Depression. The novel is semi-autobiographical as Lee incorporated many elements and people from her own childhood; however, the maturation of the young girl, Scout Finch, frames the telling of another story that contains extreme prejudice. Should we not read the book because it contains events that involve prejudice? I strongly disagree.
There is a reason that we choose to study books and not to simply read them. There is a great deal of potential in some books to spark conversation about history in order to determine if the events are accurately portrayed for a particular time period. The dialogue that is produced by studying a controversial novel as a class is valuable. Banning books is contrary to the concept of getting a ‘higher’ education. Young people are capable of intelligently discussing controversial material, and you will find that many disengaged learners will actually thrive in an intellectually stimulating environment.
Censorship is the enemy #1 of education.