Kevin: According to the American Library Association, there were 330 attempts to ban books between September 1st and December 1st, 2021. By comparison, in 2019, there were only 377 for the entire year. Clearly, we're seeing an increase in parent challenges to books in our schools. But is it really a concern for our kids that is driving this activity? Or are other forces at work? What types of books are being targeted? And why are people demanding that they be censored? And what is the impact on our kids and society at large, when we decide that a story needs to be hidden from our children's eyes? This is "What I Want to Know."
Kevin: And today, I'm joined by Dr. Emily Knox to find out. Dr. Emily Knox is an associate professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is a leading researcher on the topics of information access and intellectual freedom. And she is the author of two books that are considered authoritative sources on censorship today. From "Time Magazine" to "NPR," Emily has been at the forefront of the book banning debate for some time. And she is here today to help us understand the motivations behind this movement, and what it means for our children. Emily, welcome to the show.
Dr. Knox: Hello, thank you for inviting me.
Kevin: I always ask people about their background, because I wonder how they got into the field that they chose. But looking at your background it's kind of obvious. Tell us about your mother and her experiences as a librarian, which obviously, had an impact on you.
Dr. Knox: My mom was a high school librarian for 32 years. And I really got interested in thinking about book banning, because we always did something for Banned Books Week, the last week of September. She would bring home the list of books that have been banned, and the posters, the information. So I just got really interested in thinking about banned books.
Kevin: So, I wanna talk about the recent push. But before I do, let's go back to the origins of book banning. When did this become sort of a thing?
Dr. Knox: Ever since books have been around, people have been banning them. Books are very powerful objects of transmission. They transmit information and knowledge through time and space, which is very different from other types of methods of transmission. So, this has always been a big issue. I would say in the United States, this is really something that the vice societies of the Victorian era were very interested in what people were reading. Of course, Anthony Comstock used his position as the U.S. Postmaster General, to decide what people should or shouldn't read. The last book that was actually banned federally in the United States was "Ulysses." But since then there has been booked challenges on a local or state level all the time. So, there are always people who are trying to control what other people read. It's just a matter of, you know, what geographic area are you looking at.
Kevin: So let's go back to what you said, though. You said the Victorian age and vice. I mean, my sense is that many of the book banning efforts relate to race, sexuality, drugs. I guess that falls in that category, right?
Dr. Knox: The vice societies were very concerned about mass-market novels. So, you can see how this is actually attached to the industrial age, the idea that there was increasing literacy, and what were people reading? Were they reading good books, books that would basically I use the word edify, edify the soul, or were they reading murder mysteries, mysteries about, you know, books about women of the night, right? That sort of thing was always a concern for them. So, this continues to today. There's still concern about what are people reading? Are they reading the right types of books? Will this actually confer onto them the values that whoever you are that you think are important?
Kevin: But, Emily, who gets to choose what the right thing to read is?
Dr. Knox: So, this has always been an issue in our society. But actually, in any society. Usually elites, I'll put it that way, get to choose what people get to read. But the interesting thing about books is that they are so highly disseminated and circulated, that actually people choose individually what they get to read. What we see in book challenges is that people are actually not talking about the books themselves. What they are actually talking about is what books is my community saying are okay? So, are these books actually in keeping with the values of my community? The books themselves are just kind of a symbol for thinking about community values and what is important, especially when it comes to these kinds of challenges.
Kevin: You know, one thing I've always thought about, Emily, when it comes to this issue, it's easy for a firestorm to develop around a certain book, or what is believed to be contained within a certain book. How many people who protested actually read the books that they're complaining about?
Dr. Knox: So that is a highly contested question. But let me say that some people hate to read the book, and some people don't read the book at all. So, it actually depends on the person who is bringing the challenge. So, I've seen cases where people read the entire book, flag every single page that they think is problematic. And I've seen other people say that they don't want that book infecting their soul, so they will not read every page. Instead, they get lists of problematic pages that are readily available on the internet. So, it really depends on the person, and sometimes often, even the book, whether or not someone will read it.
Kevin: Talk to me a little bit about what I understand to be the Streisand Effect where, you know, sometimes the more you lift up a subject or a topic, you draw attention to it. And there have been examples where people say they wanna ban certain books, but this Streisand Effect is, in fact, it grows interest in readership.
Dr. Knox: Actually, the Streisand Effect can be both positive and negative. It does draw attention to a book, but that attention is not always positive. So, yes, you probably will sell more books if you are challenged or banned, although it really depends. I mean, I can name books that people have never heard of that have been challenged in some places. But it also draws out people who are against your book. And so, you actually may receive more harassment, doxing, those sorts of things.
Kevin: Yeah. And I want to ask you about, you know, now that we've talked a little bit about the history, I wanna get more into, you know, some of the challenges to diverse books written by diverse authors. But generally, as I said during the introduction, we've seen more book banning efforts in the last three months in 2021 than we did all of 2019. And there's clearly a bigger push to ban books. And I wanted to get your thoughts on why?
Dr. Fox: So, I really think that our society is in an inflection point. We are now approximately 20 years out from becoming a majority-minority country. That is already true in several states. We have been through a backlash election. We had the insurrection. We had the George Floyd murder. These have really spotlighted issues that have been simmering under the surface in our country for a very long time. And what happens with book challenges is that book challenges are reactionary, so they never happen right away. They always take a little bit of time. But you can see that, in fact, the books that are being challenged now are about these topics, these topics that we really have not settled in our society.
Sometimes people ask me, you know, "Will we see more of these?" I'm like, "Well, we haven't even decided how we're gonna talk about January 6th in our schools, right?" That's not even part of anybody's social studies curriculum for the fifth grade. You know, like, that's...we just do not know what will happen with that. And that's really how I think about book challenges. They amplify anxieties within society as a whole, in a way that's very, very localized. So, we have more or less direct democracy in our local municipalities. And this is a way of saying, you know, "I can't really do much about whatever may be happening on the federal level, but I can make sure that the kids in my community are being taught my values." And so, we haven't decided how we're gonna talk about what does it mean that we have a racially diverse country.
Kevin: I'm really struck by your reference to the fact that the book banning push really is almost a delayed reaction to some of the challenges going on in society. I mean, I didn't...you said it far more artfully. But I can actually see that, which leads me to the question of who's driving these challenges? And I would presume, I'd like to get your thoughts that that depends on the issue.
Dr. Knox: The actual drivers are parents. Yes, sometimes they group together and to say, no left turn, mom's for liberty, these other pressure groups. But honestly, it does not take all that much. I actually think the pandemic is related to this. We were able to see how and what kids were being taught in your living room. And I think some parents were not happy about what their kids were being taught. And it actually opened up a quite closed system to parents.
Kevin: What can we do to help make sure that parents are getting a more well-rounded perspective around some of these issues involving curriculum, as opposed to the noise that leaves them...because some of the parents may not even be reading these books, or some of the parents may not be aware of "the other side of some of these issues" yet they go full force because it's, I don't mean to say it the wrong way, it's almost like a herd mentality.
Dr. Knox: What really needs to happen is that we need to approach these parents with empathy. In fact, so a lot of the concern, for example, about diverse books, especially books about race in America the concern seems to be about, what does it mean for my white child to learn about this painful history? And I think we need to talk about that honestly. It's not about guilt, you know, it's not about, like, shame. And I think what actually a lot of the parents feel is shame. But it's not about individual shame. It's really about what has happened before, and how do we make a better world going forward? How do we ensure that yes, your five-year-old understands that their world has been shaped by what's come before? We often don't do that engagement quite as well as I think we should.
Kevin: One thing I want to address with you is the student impact because, you know, the parent role is huge. And understandably, the parents helped drive some of these concerns. But what about students because so many students, I think, find themselves caught in the middle, particularly when they read books, and they may not be focused on the same things that the parents or the other folks are criticizing? And they get something out of, but they can't even have discussions about what they may have learned because of all the rancor behind these issues.
Dr. Knox: When it comes to students, these books open up new worlds to them. And that's the point to think differently about your world because, of course, a lot of us, we live in very segregated towns. You know, both class, racially, and this is how we learn about people who are different from us.
Kevin: So, Emily, this has been terrific, by the way, and I have one final question. This is what I really wanna know. What general advice would you give to school leaders on how to deal with the whole book banning issue?
Dr. Knox: Much to the surprise of book banners, of course, schools are extremely conservative risk-averse institutions, right? No principal or superintendent ever wants to be in the newspaper for this. This is not what they want. In fact, you have to engage and really be brave, and say, "This is the right thing for our students to read these books." I understand that that is very difficult. You know, principals like to be in the news because of how great their students did at the Science Fair. That's what they want.
And this is very different publicity, and it can be very hard. I really worry about the effect this will have on the next generation of teachers, librarians. I think a lot of people will not go into these professions because it is so difficult, but you really have to support your teachers, the staff at the schools, be willing to, in some ways, take abuse from people screaming at you, yelling at you. I hope that you're engaging in self-care. I know, this isn't about the books themselves. But as I say, it's not really about the books, it's really about the transmission of values. And that is what schools are here for, and we really need to think about what does it mean to be a good citizen in the 21st century, and it's different than it was before.
Kevin: Emily Knox, thank you so much. And thank you for joining us on "What I Want to Know."
Dr. Knox: Thank you.
Kevin: Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. Also, I encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
Meet Dr. Knox
Dr. Emily Knox is an associate professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is a leading researcher on the topics of information access and intellectual freedom. She is also the author of two books that are considered authoritative sources on censorship today.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.