Tuesday, September 30, 2008

On Banning of Books

More memories, but this time from later periods of my life. I’m thinking of these in light of Banned Books Week. A blog attached to Arkansas Times—“A Chick Called Mick”—reports on that topic today (www.arktimes.com/blogs/mick/2008/09/post.aspx).

Mick notes that To Kill a Mockingbird was banned by a school district in 1977 because it contained rough language. But my memories suggest to me that this book was a concern in some circles at an even earlier period.

When I was in 9th grade, our imposing (and skilled) English teacher Ida Cook assigned it. The entire class had to read, discuss, and write about it. This was in 1964-1965, the middle of the civil rights struggle. In a smallish south-Arkansas town that chose to integrate its schools “with all deliberate speed”—that is, a town that chose not to integrate until the courts forced integration three years after that.

As I look back, I can’t help thinking that Mrs. Cook was a very courageous woman, to assign a book that probed the roiling depths of small-town Southern racism in a period when such an educational choice could well have produced significant backlash. Her choice to have us read (and discuss, and write about, and write some more about, in keeping with her methods of teaching English) To Kill a Mockingbird in that time and place was a choice that required grit—of which she had an abundance.

Perhaps I was sheltered, but I recall only one, one tiny bit, of controversy when Mrs. Cook assigned this book to my 9th-grade class. A Mennonite family objected, and requested that their son be allowed to read something else. I remember this vividly, because (typical of her teaching methods) Mrs. Cook made the request the subject of a class discussion.

The objection of the family had to do with the fact that the book’s plot centers on a question of rape. Mennonites were few in my town. They were highly regarded, peaceable people who ran a nursing home and bothered no one. I can’t recall the objection ruffling many feathers in our class. We took for granted that Mennonites did things, well, differently. They were not allowed, for example, to participate in physical education classes, because of the immodesty of the dress required for gym. I envied them that opportunity to escape from the tortures of p.e.

Today, I suspect, choosing books to assign a class of 9th graders is much trickier business. Now, watchdog groups of parents who have designated themselves the guardians of the purity (and minds) of youth seem to be everywhere.

My first encounter with those groups was shortly after I finished college, in a year in which I taught English and religion to 8th graders in a Catholic grade school in New Orleans. When I took the job, I did not know that this was the sole white parish in the city that had managed to keep the enrollment of its parochial school all-white. It did so by forming ironclad neighborhood covenants to keep African-American families from moving into the parish. These covenants were apparently vigorously enforced, with threats of violence to those who dared to question them.

I entered the classroom of this school fresh out of college with not a clue in the world of any of these sociological realities bubbling in the background of parish life. Because the religious studies textbook used for students at my grade level recommended a unit on racism, and because it helpfully also suggested a video produced by a Catholic religious order that was available through the archdiocese, I chose to show the video to my students.

And all hell broke loose. The video told the story of a child from a white family in a Southern town who, because of a family crisis, was left overnight in the care of a black family. The night changed his life. He discovered that people he had previously considered other than himself in a demeaning way were people like himself, flesh of his flesh.

Parents would not have this kind of teaching. They stormed the principal’s office and the pastor’s office. I was whisked away to both offices to defend my choice of teaching materials inappropriate for the grade-level at which I was presenting this material.

To her credit, the principal, a nun, upheld my decision, noting that the unit of study and video were recommended by the textbook we were using in class, and that the video was available through the archdiocesan office of religious education. The pastor, however, took a dimmer view of my choice. And he called the shots in the parish, school and all, despite the fact that the nuns ran it and had degrees in the field of education, whereas he did not.

In the pastor’s judgment, I was introducing 8th-grade students to material beyond their ken. It was too early for students to learn about racism in the 8th grade. Let them learn how to say their prayers and to answer questions like why God made us. Racism—they could tackle that when they were adults.

I later learned that this pastor had come to the parish following a pastor who did, in fact, preach about racism. He called it a sin. He called those parishioners resisting segregation sinners who needed to wrestle with their consciences. When he preached in that vein, the parishioners repaid him by putting tiny chocolate babies instead of money in the collection basket. Brotherly love they would have preached. Applications of brotherly love that applied to them and the lives they lived they absolutely would not hear preached.

In a way, it did not surprise me when, later in the year, there was a similar uproar after I assigned The Diary of Anne Frank to my accelerated English class. Once again, visits to the principal, visits to the pastor. Once again, the principal upheld me, noting that I was assigning a book that, for God’s sake, was recommended for early adolescents in every credible list of books anyone could think of. Once again, the pastor hemmed and hawed and took the side of the angry parents.

Whose objection was that—I am not making this up—The Diary of Anne Frank was about Anne Frank’s incestuous relationship with her father. It had her sitting on the father’s lap, something that clearly connoted incest (in their twisted minds, that is). Their children were not to read those passages. Ludicrously, as we read the text aloud in class, I was to allow students to jump up and notify me when a passage was too offensive for ears to hear. If nothing else, this practice had the unintended effect of searing those forbidden passages into the minds of the students I was teaching.

The controversy over Anne Frank’s diary was, of course, payback for my choice to show the students a video about racial harmony. They loved the video, by the way, asked to see it again—another mark against me as a teacher.

I just don’t get the book-banning mentality. These parents were solidly middle-class and intent on seeing their children go off to good schools. And yet, they seemed to see no inconsistency between demanding that their children receive the best education possible in grade school and high school, and in censoring reading lists. They did not seem to recognize that, in suggesting to their children that The Diary of Anne Frank was a smutty book to be censored, they were hobbling their children’s minds, working against the educational process the children needed if they were, indeed, to be well-prepared for top-notch schools.

Maybe I don’t understand banning books, or rigorously controlling what children read, because my parents had no interest in censoring what any of their children read. Granted, I grew up in a time and place in which any kind of sexually explicit literature was well-nigh impossible to obtain, when one was a minor. All such books, including books with classical art that contained nudes, was held under lock and key at our public library, and the tall, forbidding elderly woman who held that key on a necklace around her neck was not someone with whom even a curious child willingly chose to deal.

Nonetheless, my parents had no qualms about allowing us to read anything else we wanted to read—adult novels or children’s books. It did not matter. Perhaps they didn’t care, as long as we were engrossed in a book and out of their hair. I suspect they also did not believe in supervising what their children read as long as the books we chose were clearly not suspect.

I’m glad, frankly, that I grew up in an environment in which I could read Victorian novels about dolls weeded from one of my teacher aunts’ school library, alongside Pilgrim’s Progress and Isaac Asimov, and, at a later date (in 9th grade) a mind-blowing history of world religions in our school library which taught me that all religions, Judaism and Christianity included, have historical roots that borrow from other world religions. Learning from this book that historians of religion see Yahweh as a mountain god whom the Hebrews elevated to the status of the single deity who made the world was, well, an earth-shattering discovery for a young adolescent whose sole religious education had come from Sunday School indoctrination.

And that led to Newman’s Apologia, a recommended book on my high-school reading list, and Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, also recommended—and this in a public high school in south Arkansas in the 1960s. I understood neither, not really, but I did learn to appreciate magnificent prose as I read Newman, and sharp argument and careful logic, as I struggled with Aquinas.

And Muriel Spark. And Tolkien. And Graham Greene. And Evelyn Waugh. Flannery O’Connor. Katherine Anne Porter. Theodore Dreiser. Cicero, Catullus, Virgil, Marcus Aurelius. Goethe, Shakespeare, Thornton Wilder, Li Po, Tu Fu, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Whitman, Thoreau, Dickinson, Emerson. All these, and many other writers, formed the framework of my coming to intellectual maturity in high school. I would give nothing in exchange for the hours I spent reading as a child and young man, and for the wide liberty I had to read.

Children should, in my view, be allowed to read widely. Adults should be allowed to read widely, for that matter, and should be encouraged to read widely. Who knows when the idea that will unlock many doors in our mind will pop up in a suspect book, an overlooked book, a despised book?

Unless, of course, the game plan of self-appointed censors is precisely to keep ideas that unlock doors from popping up in our minds?