Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Parents Banning Books (And Why It's A Bad Idea)

Looking at the list of books that parents want banning in parts of the US is quite eye-opening. I'd have thought that it would be the typical sort of tomes that parents don't want their kids reading until they are more adult - y'know, stuff by Stephen King and Chuck Palahniuk. However, there are some genuine classics in the list of books that cause consternation. Two really stand out to me as books that not only shouldn't be banned from schools, but should be read while at school:
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee: Offensive language, racism, unsuited to age group
Well, of course there's offensive language and racism in To Kill A Mockingbird. It's about racism, for God's sake. And that's precisely why it should be taught in schools - to introduce the concept of racism in the classroom, where it can be discussed what it is, why it happens and - crucially - why it is wrong. Pretending racism doesn't exist in schools is not going to stop it existing outside of schools. In fact, quite the opposite is true.
Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
Yes, Catcher in the Rye has all those elements to it - which is what makes it such a great novel for teenagers. The fact that it is (relatively) explicit and more than a bit nihilistic is exactly what makes it great. Again, this is a perfect novel for teenagers - mainly because it is about being a teenager, and those feelings of discomfort, alienation and the desperation to get to the perceived freedom of adulthood. Yes, it's a grown-up novel, but it is also about growing up - and therefore the perfect time to read it is when you are growing up.

The whole point of reading books at school is not just to be able to say that you have read books - it's to have read thought-provoking (and therefore often provocative) books and then discussed them with your peers and with a teacher. That way, you can learn from To Kill A Mockingbird why racism is wrong and from Catcher in the Rye that you are not alone in feelings of alienation while being a teenager - and what can be done to deal with those feelings.

It is all very well getting kids to read supposed "classics" - but I remember remarkably little from reading such books as The Grapes of Wrath and plays such as Pericles when I was younger. The books that stick in my mind - the ones that actually taught me stuff - were the edgier ones, like The Bell Jar, Lord of the Flies, Nineteen Eighty-Four and (although I still hate it to this day) Wise Children. I value what I got from those books as they taught me a lot about the real world. Which, surely, should be one of the key aspirations of any education?

The desire of parents to ban certain books from school resides in a desire to protect them, to keep them pure and untainted by the real world. Unfortunately, at some point a kid - if they are going to be able to function in the real world - needs to be exposed to that real world, and made aware of all the negative things in it. What better way to do that than through getting them to read a provocative, well-written book and then discuss it the safety of a classroom?

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At 1:54 pm , Blogger DJ Flagship said...

I wonder what percentage of those parents that complained read their first book in their early 30s, and that first book was a Harry Potter book....

At 2:14 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

It really is time for a new Thomas Bowlder.

The bible has some filthy parts, and as for Shakespeare - eh.

Remember Enid B? I was told not to read her as she would stunt my reading age.

Funny, that: I later read English at Oxford.


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