On Book Banning…

So, social media is on a bit of a boil over two separate but kinda similar-ish sorta events.

  1. A school board in Tennessee removed the work Maus from their library, and banned it from being taught in their school. (Link)
  2. A school board in Washington state removed the novel To Kill a Mockingbird from their curriculum’s required reading list. (Link)

Now, you may assume that being a writer, I’d be vehemently against the idea of “banning” books (in the sense of academic use). You’d be wrong. As far as it pertains to teaching purposes, I’m generally not bothered by what books are and aren’t specifically used. There are many books in this world, and any of them can be used by teachers to convey the messages and writing techniques that they wish to convey to students.

I do have a bit of a problem when they are used to score political points, which to different degrees both of these incidents are. A big clue is that neither school board has shown any indication what they intend to replace those books with in their curriculum… or even if they have any plans to do so. These were decisions to demonstrate to the parents just what these school boards believe in.

Sure, both school boards will give their reasons. To Kill a Mockingbird has problematic “white savior” narratives that run through it, or Maus contains “graphic imagery” that is disturbing to young students, for example. Many of the criticisms will be legitimate on its face. But at the end of the day, it’s hard to see how they aren’t a fairly clear political message.

(On an aside, to Mike Cochran of the McMinn County School Board: I had many emotions running through my mind as I read Maus. “Enjoyment” was certainly not one of them. While I am willing to accept that you poorly chose your words in an off-the-cuff quote, there is a significant number of the world’s population that would genuinely “enjoy” the imagery of that graphic novel, and those are not good people. Anyone who said they “enjoyed” Maus would be asked to provide a pretty damn good explanation for their choice of words lest they quickly find themselves no longer talking to me, and probably for good.)

That said, these two stories are, in fact, not the same, and our fourth pillar would be served to not treat them as if they are. Much like nearly everything else in our political discourse, one side is significantly more guilty and with significantly greater severity than the other. The conservatives and reactionaries among us are a far greater threat to our political discourse and sustainability of our society at this moment, and these two stories reflect that.

Maus was outright banned. Teachers are no longer permitted to discuss it. The school library is not allowed to have it on their shelves, or even in their stacks. For students whose only exposure to books is their school library (which is no doubt a non-zero number), Maus no longer exists in their world.

Meanwhile, To Kill a Mockingbird is simply no longer required reading for students in the Mukilteo school district. Teachers are still allowed to present it to students as supplementary text (and I’m sure many will). Students can still be recommended it and it can still be found in their school libraries. Depending on what book is chosen, there is not necessarily any meaningful loss in the education of these children. Presuming, of course, that a replacement actually is chosen or at the very least some rationalization that other books already in the required reading list can fill that niche.

Which it may not be, because again… it’s hard to see how at its core, this move isn’t political posturing of its own. But at the same time, it is long past due to stop approaching such decisions as binary actions of equal severity.

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