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COLUMN: Banning books harms students

No book should ever be banned. 

Even texts containing obscene or offensive content are artifacts of the human condition and, if taught carefully, can be used to illuminate history or contemporary culture and encourage progress. 

Harper Lee’s "To Kill a Mockingbird" has a long history of being subjected to censorship at the hands of schools and communities who do not share this belief, and the public school district of Biloxi, Mississippi, is only the most recent offender to join the list.

First banned in Hanover County, Virginia, in 1966 for its central involvement of rape in the plot, "To Kill a Mockingbird" has since become the twenty-first most-banned book in the United States. 

Since then, the novel has also been banned for its use of racial slurs on the grounds that such language “promotes white supremacy.” 

Such an argument completely ignores the context of the novel, which makes clear the use of language such as the n-word is included only for the sake of accuracy in depicting the segregated American South of the early 20th century. 

In a letter to the Richmond Times-Dispatch regarding the Hanover ban, Lee wrote, “Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that 'To Kill a Mockingbird' spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners.”

To explain Biloxi’s censorship, School Board Vice President Kenny Holloway claims that “There is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable, and we can teach the same lesson with other books.”

If these other books manage to meet Biloxi’s requirements of non-offensive content, then I have considerable doubts with regard to the accuracy of their representations of how life in the age of "To Kill a Mockingbird" truly was, especially for African Americans. 

We must not sacrifice comfort for truth of content, and limiting exposure to watered-down accounts of what was in fact very potent racism would only be more harmful to students. 

Of course, there is an argument to be made students who feel threatened by the forces the text indicts should be permitted to decide for themselves whether they are comfortable reading it. 

If distress while reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" relates, for example, to the emotional pain a black student might feel in examining the racism on display in the novel, he or she could reasonably decide not to continue reading it. 

On the other hand, students who are further separated from the experience of racism against black people in America, especially white students, incur a greater loss of empathy and cultural awareness if they are never exposed to books that teach them about perspectives other than their own. 

We may sometimes wish to shield children from aspects of reality we feel they are not yet mature enough to face, but there is a difference between preserving innocence and promoting ignorance. 

Biloxi’s implied desire to use books that mitigate the reality of the United State's history of racism instead of books that represent racism accurately will only inhibit the development of their students’ sociocultural maturation. 

As Harper Lee herself once said, “The book to read is not the one that thinks for you, but the one which makes you think.” 


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