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Open Books, Open Minds: How censorship limits students

May 18, 2016

“It’s not appropriate.”

If you’re a teenager, your parents have probably told you that a thousand times. Then it’s off to your room to change out of your adorable new skirt or to text your friends an apology that you can’t make the R-rated movie you all had planned to see.

In the struggle to establish your own adult self, there’s always conflict. Within it, parents seem to control everything: the clothes you wear, the shows you watch, and even the people you hang out with.

But what about the books you read?

This year, a Virginia mother went to court, insisting that parents be allowed to block their children from reading books in school that contain sexually explicit material. Teachers would have to identify books with these materials, notify parents, and give them the right to “opt out” of the assigned reading in place of an alternative novel.

One of the books the mother wanted to “opt out” of? Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and American classic, Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

It should be noted that her child was in high school. Governor Terry McAucliffe vetoed the resulting bill, leaving the decision up to the individual school boards. In Frederick County Public Schools, the Office of Secondary English has a list of books and videos that require parent permission before using in English classrooms.

The plot of Beloved includes some sensitive topics. It contains scenes depicting rape and murder, and the book itself focuses heavily on the lingering effects of racism after the Civil War. It is controversial, gritty, and potentially painful to read.

That’s what makes it such an amazing book.

The banning of books in schools and libraries has been going on for centuries. The first banned book in America was Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan, published in 1650 and banned soon after. Controversial topics, political opinions, homosexuality, racism, illicit material, and even mentions of religions beyond Christianity have all been enough to get a book banned.

After the Supreme Court’s decision in Island Trees School District v. Pico, 1982, federal law states that a book cannot be removed from school libraries at the mere whim of the school board. The book must first be challenged on grounds other than merely disagreeing with its material, and the decision must be reviewed extensively. 

Purposefully denying students access to ideas that the challenger disagrees with violates the First Amendment. Yet book banning is still happening. 

In 2014, a high school in Delaware removed The Miseducation of Cameron Post from its assigned summer reading list and considered having the book banned. Formally, the school system said it was due to the extensive profanity throughout the novel.

Curiously, several other books on the reading list had the same type of language, yet they remained unchallenged. So what was wrong with Cameron Post?

Not only is the protagonist a lesbian, but also, she is a young girl who opposes the beliefs of her religious community.

The novel portrays a free-spirited teenager living in a conservative neighborhood. As those around her attempt to force her into a shell of heteronormativity, Cameron struggles to maintain her sense of self. It explores teenage sexuality, challenges societal norms, and encourages free-minded thinking.

Parents and community members spoke out immediately. 

While some were pleased at the diverse selection, most believed that it should be removed, if not banned, immediately. The main complaint was that the book wasn’t “age-appropriate” for the incoming freshmen it was assigned to. Parents and board members said that students weren’t mature enough to comprehend the topics the controversial novel tackles.

But for students who are wrestling with their identity, or simply want to gain a broader understanding of the world around them, I believe this is exactly the time to read this book.

Community board member Roni Posner, who came into her sexuality as a young teen, said in an interview with The Atlantic, “It would have been helpful to me. It’s untraditional. But it’s a very real, very honest book, and it’s a very important book.”

The school board eventually decided to remove the assigned reading list altogether. Students would still have to read over the summer and complete the assignment, but the assignment could be fulfilled with any book the student chose.

Ironically, like most banned literature, the controversy over the book only increased its popularity. Of course, knowing the teenage mindset, such a reaction is expected.

Another popular read, John Green’s Looking for Alaska, has been named the number 1 challenged book of 2015 by the American Library Association for its sexually explicit scenes.  

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a spectacular novel by Mark Haddon, is the fifth most challenged book for its offensive language and religious viewpoint, specifically atheism. Its Broadway play adaptation won six Tony awards in 2015 for Best Play, Best Direction of a Play, Best Actor in a Play, Best Lighting Design of a Play, Best Scenic Design of a Play, and Best Choreography.

The Holy Bible is number six on the ALA’s 2015 list. The presence of any religious text in schools is a debate that has gone on for ages.

I am Jazz, Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, and Two Boys Kissing are numbers three, four, and ten respectively. Each were challenged primarily because they contained homosexuality.

The Supreme Court’s decision is clear: Adults cannot purposefully deny students access to the ideas contained within a book simply because they disagree with them.

Just because parents disagree with someone’s religious views or don’t approve of someone’s sexuality, does not mean they can stop their children from ever being exposed to ideas and people who are different. 

Perhaps parents can control every aspect of a child’s life within the home, but the moment they step onto the school bus, the second they step out the front door, everything they are exposed to is beyond the parent’s control.

Many people agree that book banning is wrong. No one person should be allowed to control what everyone is allowed to read. However, parents are still allowed to insist that their children be provided with alternative reading materials if they, the parents, don’t agree with the contents of a certain novel, no matter what the student thinks.

I don’t agree with that.

“It’s how you grow as a person,” said LHS English teacher Mary Ellen Newcomb. “First you learn from the home and then from the world around you. If you read something that is completely against what you’ve been taught, it can either strengthen your beliefs or make you open to looking at something more.”

If students are never allowed to learn about different cultures and ways of life, they’ll never learn to respect those around them. They will never understand the need to appreciate and value other’s differences.

Many severely lack a sense understanding for other’s backgrounds, culture, and heritage.

In a 2014 survey conducted by The Atlantic, they asked Americans if they could pinpoint Ukraine on a map. Despite the fact that the conflicts with Ukraine had been being aired regularly on the news, only one in six could. The study also found that the farther their guesses from the country’s actual location, the more likely they were to suggest that the U.S. use military force against it.

“Students have to be exposed to controversial topics,” said Susan Peterson, Linganore English Teacher. “It opens the mind. It helps them to understand all viewpoints. Whether you agree with them or not, it’s important to understand other people.”

Teens have to be allowed to develop, change, and form their own opinions. They will not remain the same as their parents. The world they are entering looks much different from the world their parents entered after high school.

That’s an important part of growing up.

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