Originally published on Newsweek on May 10, 2022
From "Maus" to "A Place Inside of Me" to "The Color Purple," every day seems to bring a new headline about another attempt to censor what our kids read. Increasingly, these attempts are resulting in books actually being pulled from shelves in school libraries across the country.
In a society built on freedom of speech, information and thought, it may be surprising to some that these campaigns have been so successful to date. But there is simply no denying the complexity of the issue. Most Americans have an immediate and visceral negative reaction to the concept of book banning, but a growing group of Americans also favor some form of regulation when it comes to the content our kids can access.
So, in the end, it comes down to the age-old question: "Where do we draw the line?" And that's a puzzle not even the U.S. Supreme Court could solve. In the landmark 1964 case, Jacobellis v. Ohio, Justice Potter Stewart famously uttered the phrase "I know it when I see it" to define obscene content. In the decades since, we've made little progress on a working definition, and therefore, we're no closer to a shared consensus on what is and isn't acceptable.
Today, there are additional factors muddying the waters. For one, many books themselves have increasingly become litmus tests on whether or not a public official shares the values of his or her community (and its voters). And let's not forget the Streisand Effect, which is the very real phenomenon by which a banned book grows more popular and widely read because it was banned in the first place.
Simply put, there's a lot to untangle. But we have to try, because school administrators and officials in nearly every jurisdiction may find themselves wrestling with this issue — and we can't allow our children's education and social development to suffer simply because it is controversial. As such, perhaps the best we can do is try to agree on some basic principles that put children first and help guide our decisions. To that end, here are three concepts that may get us off on the right foot:
1. Err on the side of decisions that encourage kids to read more.
The developmental benefits of reading aren't merely limited to increased comprehension and an improved vocabulary. Reading books stimulates the brain in ways that more passive media such as television do not. It develops critical thinking skills and enhances students' ability to understand others. Perhaps most important of all to teachers and administrators, reading outside of school has long been inexorably linked to improved performance in class and on standardized tests. For all these reasons, it's important to provide kids with a rich variety of books to choose from so they can find material that will keep them reading.
2. Encourage more diversity in young adult literature.
Jim Blasingame, a professor at Arizona State University and co-editor of the ALAN Review, a journal devoted to young adult literature, says that "when kids read about characters they can identify with, their reading proficiency goes up." And therein lies a problem, given the diversity that exists in our public schools today. According to a recent survey of young adult and children's literature, nearly half of all main characters are white while only 11% are Black, 8% are Asian and 5% are Hispanic or Latino; only 3% represent the LGBTQ+ community. Since kids do better when they read stories they can relate to, we need to do a better job of putting those stories in front of them.
3. Realize that Gen Z can handle tough topics without becoming indoctrinated.
While it may not come as a shock to learn that this generation of young people has been exposed to a litany of controversial issues — related to current events, social justice and our country's history — it may surprise you to learn that this generation is actually less partisan as a result. That shows a correlation between access to information and the ability to think for oneself; it provides another reason to set a high standard when it comes to banning books.
Put kids first, and the rest will fall into place.
At the very least, our choices need to come from an informed place. If we aren't making decisions based on the text itself, then we need to re-examine our methodology altogether.
And if there's one theme that seems to consistently run through the arguments on both sides of the book banning issue, it's that the interests of adults are too often put ahead of the interests of kids. More and more, their growth and development are held hostage by our culture wars, and learning becomes collateral damage as a result.
If we reverse this dynamic and approach these tough questions from the students' perspective first, we may find that the answers aren't as elusive as we once thought and that we are, in fact, able to create consensus around the one value upon which we can all agree — that nothing should come before our kids' education.
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