Tag: censorship

Book Banning: An Alternate History

internet writing technology computer
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I have a theory of learning, based largely on my own experience, that goes somthing like this: Elementary school taught me how to read. High school taught me how to think critically about what I read. College taught me how use those skills to learn. It seems ironic, but after passing through sixteen years of schooling, I was finally ready to learn. And that is what I have tried to do ever since. I graduated from college in 1994. In 1996 I began keeping a list of books that I read. In the 26+ years that I’ve maintained that list, I’ve read 1,135 books. Thanks to my elementary school education, I was able to read those books in the first place. Thanks to high school, I was able to think critically about what I read. And thanks to college, I’ve managed to learn something new from every single book I’ve read since.

The news lately contains reports of increased book banning across the country. My critical eye warns me that it is hard to say if such an increase is really happening, or just being reported more. A recent example: a school board in Tennessee banning the book Maus by Art Spiegelman. From what I can tell, the book was banned because of the swear words it contained. The argument from one of the school board members was that a student using such language in the school would be up for disciplanary action, therefore, why have a book in the library that uses this language?

The critical thinking I learned in high school has some objections to this argument, but others writing about the book ban have covered those objections exhaustively. I want to take a different approach to looking at this trend in book banning, a kind of alternate history, if you will.

I am the product of public libraries and public school systems. The first library I was ever introduced to was the Franklin Township Library in Somerset, New Jersey. I was five or six years old. My mom took me, as I recall, and I was amazed by all the books they had. My mom had told me that books were a way to explore just about anything. I landed on a copy of a book called The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley. The tagline on the book was “exploring our universe” and I was hooked. I checked that book out again, and again. It introduced me to astronomy, and more broadly, to science. I discovered a majesty in the idea that we were just one small planet in the larger universe. I discovered comfort in the idea of the scientific method: that you could learn new things from experimentation; that you could apply knowledge and reason to problem-solving. Of course, as a six year old, I didn’t think all of this at the time. But I recognize the sense of wonder it instilled in me. That one book set me on a path that led me to where I am today. What success I have had in school, in life, and in my career, has come from the ideas initially stirred in my by that book.

Now: what if that book had been banned?

The Nine Planets
My copy of The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley.

The reason the book is banned doesn’t matter so much as the inability to access it. I’m not saying that the reason for the ban isn’t important, but from a practical standpoint of someone with the limited access and resources of a six-year old, the fact is that whatever the reason, I can’t get the book in my library.

It is possible that I would have stumbled upon some other book that stirred similar emotions and ideas within me. There had to be something already there inside me that made the book resonate with me to begin with. So it is possible that some other book would have done the trick. But book-banning is a slippery slope, and this is where the reason for the ban is important. If The Nine Planets had been banned because school board members objected to the message it presented to impressionable students–perhaps that the book described a creation of the universe that varied from a view held by the school board members–then it would make sense that other books that varied from this view might also find themselves on the banned book list. That would make it less likely that I would encounter the ideas that led to my success in life–at least at such an early age. Would I be the same person I am today if The Nine Planets had been banned?

There seeems to be concern among school boards that lean toward banning books that the messages in these books are so powerful that they will do some kind of permanent damage to students. That message could be something simple, like the use of swear words. It could be something more complex, like causing one to question how history has been taught, or reckoning with the past. Let’s set aside, for the moment, the fact that swear words are everywhere these days, from the titles of books, to the pages of newspapers, to broadcast television, to meetings in the workplace. Instead, I want to look at my own experience.

I’m not one to use swear words. I don’t object to them out of any moral or prudish ground. There are two reasons I avoid using them: (1) it was how I was brought up, and (2) I enjoy the game of finding better ways to say the same thing without using swear words. Growing up, my parents made it clear to me that I shouldn’t use bad language, and to this day, I can’t use it around them, even when they use it themselves. But as I said, I am product of the public libraries. After we moved to Los Angeles, when I was in sixth grade, I began making regular visits the the Granada Hills branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. There, I had access to books and I sampled everything. I read books on science, on history, on technology, psychology, even books on Gregg shorthand. I read fiction and that fiction sometimes contained swear words. I never felt put off by that. It never made me want to use swear words either. Indeed, the phase in my life when I swore most, was after hanging out with friends who thought it was fun to do it. So it was friends, not books or movies, that cajoled me for a short time into regular use of profanity.

Now: what if those friends had been banned?

Well, in all likelihood, I would not have gone through a short period (mostly 7th grade) where I swore like a sailor everywhere but in my house. That’s no big loss. In all likelihood, too, however, I would have missed out on the good parts of those friends, the camaraderie, the way friends point out your faults so you are aware of them and can improve, the building of social relationships, the fun we had. That is a big loss, and it seems to far outweight the swear words they encouraged me to use.

I attended a humanities magnet high public high school in Los Angeles. We read a lot of books during my three years there, and I suspect many of those books would be looked on sourly today by the school boards banning books like Maus. We read Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, which contained some graphic illustrations that we all laughed at. We read Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird in which a woman was raped with a bottle. We read plays involving incest (Oedipus Rex, Hamlet). Not only did we read them, but we had to write critical essys about them–we had to think about what we were reading. None of this did any harm to me that I am aware of. I didn’t read Breakfast of Champions and immediately begin doodling anatomy in my notebooks. I was a little startled by the scene in The Painted Bird but saw it for the verisimilitude that it was. I was bored by Oedipus Rex, but enjoyed Hamlet, although not as much as, say, Henry V. But these books and others became whetstones for critical thinking. Writing about them helped to sharpen my thoughts.

Now: what if those books had been banned?

I’m not sure a humanities magnet program can exist without such books, so the immediate impact is to destroy a program that taught me how to think critically and how to write well. Would I have done as well on my college entrance exams without such critical thinking? Without training in writing well? Would my college application essays have been as compelling? For that matter, even assuming I got into a college, would I have succeeded in the manner I did without that honed critical thinking and ability to write? Would my interests in reading have waned? Would I have tried writing fiction, as I did beginning in my junior year? Would I have sold any of what I wrote, as I ultimately did? And what of nonfiction? Would I have dared to write essays for magazines? What about this blog? Would it exist?

It is easy for a school board to ban a book. And then another. And then another. It is easy to make the argument that the books can be had elsewhere–just not in the school or town library–if you have the money to purchase it. It is easy to see book banning as an action with no real impact beyond the political message it is intended to convey to satisfy certain constituents. It is much more difficult to see how a student not having access to a book can impact the course of their life. After all, it’s just a book, right?

And yet, there are books that are the very anchor to billions of lives: The Bible, the Quran, the Vedas and the Upanishads to name just a few. These are books that impact lives every day. So who is to say that the real impact of banning The Nine Planets would be nothing more than a political message. In my case, this was the book from which my curiosity grew. This was the book that began to teach me how to think about the world. This was the book that started me on a path of reading for something beyond just entertainment. This was the book that made me a student who wanted to learn what was being taught and apply it beyond just a test. This was the book that inspired my desire to learn new things for as long as I possibly could. This was the book that has led me to read 1,135 books since leaving my formal education behind. This is the book that will keep me reading and learning until the end.

I ask again: what if that book had been banned?

Written on January 27 and February 9, 2022.

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Stop SOPA!

Tomorrow, this site will be participating in the Stop SOPA protest. When you come to the site tomorrow between 8am and 8pm EST, you will see a splash screen in protest of SOPA with information on how to take action. You will be able to continue to the site, and if I have configured things correctly, you should only see the splash screen the first time you visit. You can preview what this will look like here.

You know those dystopian futures where books are burned, libraries are censored and people have to be careful about what they say? Think it’s just science fiction? Think again. Tomorrow, with many sites on the Internet going “dark,” we’ll all get a preview of a dystopian future we must avoid.

Just a heads-up to folks who visit tomorrow and are thrown off by the splash screen.

Now we can’t say “Super Bowl”?

I might not be a fan of football, but I am fond of the freedom of speech.  I’d noted recently at least two references to the Super Bowl that didn’t actually say the words "Super Bowl".  One reference was on a radio station.  They are giving away tickets to watch the "Big Game" in Barbados and the promotion specifically mentioned that fact that they could not call it by its actual name, but "you know which game we’re talking about".  Another was on an episode of Boston Legal where the day on which the game was played was referred to as "Super Sunday".  This seemed to be an odd coincidence, so I did a quick search and found that indeed the NFL is being overzealous in its efforts to control its copyright on the phrase.  Frankly, I’m speechless.  It gives me yet another reason to despise the NFL.  This is an American sport quashing commercial free speech with ridiculous trade mark claims.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.  I suppose the NFL is just keeping up with the times.  Free speech is no longer fashionable in American; the NFL is just trying to keep pace with the trends.  George Orwell would be so proud.

There’s a freeway running through the yard

I went to Cleveland Humanities Magnet High School along with strausmouse, the Norm half of vickyandnorm, and kruppenheimer. The school is in Reseda, California, and hearing Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” always reminds me of my alma mater. It was kind of our theme song.

But a few days ago, strausmouse reminded me of our school, because it has apparently been caught up in a bit of controversy.

I am wholeheartedly with the students on this one, and can only thank the principal and teachers for acting as they did. Had they acted rationally, instead of having knee-jerk reactions, the poor students would never have gotten the publicity that they did. And that would have been a shame.

Banning Wikipedia (for rmstraus)

Yesterday, Ken Jennings had an blog post about how schools are starting to ban wikipedia use.

He makes some good points. I agree with them and reiterate them here with some of my own thoughts added.

Ken points out that this is really nothing new. Teachers have been telling students not to use the encyclopedia as a source since the dawn of time. But what are we really teaching students by “banning” the use of wikipedia or an encyclopedia? It seems to me that we should be teaching students the different functions between first and secondary sources. Encyclopedia have value. They summarize vasts amounts of information. They provide good, general introductions to subjects. And as Ken points out, a encyclopedia like wikipedia can provide up-to-date information on subjects, or provide good general introductions to subjects that are not normally covered by other sources.

Banning wikipedia implies that there is no value to it. It is better to teach the value of sources. Why are primary sources the best? What purpose do they serve? I would argue further that with the budget cuts that school and public libraries face, it is getting more difficult for high school students to find primary sources in their libraries. When I was in high school in Ms. Thatcher’s chemistry class, I grew very interested in chemistry, in particular, how quantum mechanics relates to chemistry (which wasn’t well explained in our class). I discovered that the definitive book on the subject was written by Linus Pauling. The book, The Nature of the Chemical Bond was not available in the high school library. Nor was it available in my public library. So I settled on various encyclopedia articles on the subject. Now, granted, I wasn’t writing a paper or citing sources, but even if I was, I would not have been able to get to the primary source given the resources available to me at the time. The encyclopedia provided a general overview, while citing primary material (and one of the first books cited, was Pauling’s book).

Teach kids to make good decisions about their research and they will make the best use of all of the tools available to them. There will always be kids that are just plain lazy. But I don’t think banning a source of information to prevent the lazy kids from using it does anyone any good. (You might as well ban the whole Internet, Cliffs Notes, any every other possible summary of information on a given subject.)

You shouldn’t read this

I’m a pretty mellow, easy-going guy. It takes a lot to get me really agitated and even more to get me down right pissed off. One thing that almost always does the trick are stories of censorship.

Apparently, a school board in West Virginia is trying to ban Pat Conroy’s books so that high school students can’t read them. (For those of you who don’t know, Pat Conroy wrote Prince of Tides, among other books.)

Fair warning: the rest of this entry is pure anger talking.

At first, I was mildly surprised by the article. I hadn’t been aware that West Virginians over the age of 18 could read. I don’t mean to single out West Virginians here; if this vile act had taken place in, say, California or New York, I would have been equally surprised at West Virginians’ literacy. Yes, I am denigrating the intelligence of those who would ban books. But only because banning books is one of the most stupid, backward, and ignorant things a person can do. I’m just reading the landscape people.

Pat Conroy called people who would ban his books “idiots”, which is succinct, but greatly understated. There are few words that come to mind right now to describe these morons, but then again, I only have the English language at my disposal. When the school board backed down from outright banning the book, they suggested labeling the book with a warning. I do have a word that describes that brave move: meretricious.

What’s the big deal? I suppose the argument can be made that a school is requiring students to read a book. The students have no choice if they want to get a passing grade. Parents who object to the subject matter (and it is always the people who would never read the book in the first place that seem to object to it) then argue that they can’t teach their own values if they can’t keep their children away from such filth.


It seems to me that one of the best way to highlight one’s values is by comparing them to what else is out there. Parents who teach high moral standards to their children need only reinforce those standards by letting the children read about people who don’t meet such high standards. If you ask me, some of the characters in Pat Conroy’s books go through quite a bit of hell. It’s enough to turn rotten kid sweet. And they can gain this knowledge without actually having to stoop to the low moral level these books seems to parade.

But that’s just reason talking.

Banning a book (or a TV show or a song) is about the worst thing a parent, school board or government can do. First of all, it reinforces ignorance. Second, it teaches cowardice. Third, it instantly makes the banned object desirable. Students will begin to lust for it, wondering what could possibly be so bad that their school won’t allow them to read it. (It doesn’t hurt book sales either, I suppose.)

People speak in great tones about our freedoms and how we must defend them at all costs. Our freedom to read, to learn, to grow, is among the most precious of all and we must defend that freedom at all costs. Banning books is a cowardly, shameful act. In case that wasn’t clear to the members of the Kanawha County Board of Education: Yes, I’m calling you a bunch of cowards. And you should be ashamed of yourselves. You are cowards because you took what you felt was the easy and “expedient” way out, rather than defend the most precious of freedoms that we can pass down to our children, that of free-thought. What level of Hell is reserved for cowards? I can’t remember. I suspect that in cases where banning a book is successful, the cowardice and ignorance is ultimately passed down to the students. They learn that such behavior is acceptable. Perhaps without intending it, these school boards and parents hurt their children far more than the banned books ever would have hurt them.

If I were a senior at George Washington High School where some of this book banning is taking place, I’d remember this day. And from now into the future, when asked about what I learned in school, I’d say as loudly and widely as I could that my precious high school taught me that it was okay to be a coward, that it was acceptable to hide behind a veil of ignorance, and that it was never worth it to fight the good fight.

And I’d throw it in their faces as often as I could manage.

Andy Rooney: Viewer Discretion Advised

Andy Rooney had a good piece on TV’s propensity for using “Viewer Discretion Advised” labels to attract attention to shows. Personally, I think TV should be able to show whatever it wants and people should have the option of tuning out what they don’t want to see. But, I am in the minority in that I am rational about the matter.

BTW, like Andy Rooney, I too follow a handful of the ten commandments, and I rarely use dirty words (except in my stories, where they tend to appear more frequently than I would like).