I thank The Times for its focus on the issue of censorship. The most recent editorial framed it appropriately as a national issue that has irrupted locally. According to The Washington Post, there have been 1,586 book bans in schools over the past nine months, and 15 states have enacted laws limiting how teachers can discuss such issues as racism and sexism. Of 1,500 book bans tracked, 98% “took place when administrators acted covertly or outside of the normal processes schools have set up to handle book challenges.”
Here, an objection has been raised to teaching the critically acclaimed novel, “Eleanor and Park.” Our administrators should be commended for following protocol just as they commended everyone at the recent school board meeting for remaining civil.
Because of this controversy, I am now reading “Eleanor and Park.” I made a career teaching high school English and am acquainted with the hazards of exploring controversial issues. Because part of an English teacher’s job is to teach how to analyze and create arguments, controversy is unavoidable.
I have to confess that sometimes I practiced the most pernicious form of censorship, self-censorship. Before broaching a controversial topic, I would ask myself, “Am I prepared to stir up a hornet’s nest? Do I want to defend myself against the complaints of the most conservative parent?” Sometimes my answer was, “No.”
I don’t know the thinking behind the decision to teach “Eleanor and Park,” but if that decision was, “This book is worth the trouble.” Then I admire that teacher’s courage. I haven’t finished the book, but I can already say that it is a good novel that could be very effective with the right class. While reading it, I have been reminded that some students face a much greater risk of harm from a parent than from any novel. Some kids have it really rough. School is a haven for them. I think many parents fail to appreciate that fact. Unfortunately, I believe far too many students can identify with Eleanor’s plight. On the other hand, there are a lot of students who can benefit from visualizing what some of their peers must endure.
Could the book be as effective without the use of profanity? Maybe. The question is a valid one. Should the book be banned because of its profanity and references to sex? Not in my opinion, but I’m willing to consider an opposing view. Perhaps the greatest lesson to be derived from this book is that citizens can gather in a public forum and exchange opposing views while remaining civil. We’re fortunate to live in a society that can tolerate dissent. I hope we never lose that benefit. The greatest threat to our freedom, however, is when we begin to censor ourselves to avoid the censure of others. That’s a feature that autocrats love to exploit.
Brian E Moss