Technically, this is not a banned book. Until the new policy on how to handle challenges, students will still have access to these volumes as long as they have parental permission. Still, I’d recommend that school districts deal with real problems in the worst possible way.
I am against book burning. Uh, forbidden. In principle, I suspect that almost everyone does. But the instinct to take certain books away from young people is always there. It stems from the same instinct to keep dangerous thoughts away from adults.
Lack of trust in potential readers.
In his excellent book on the importance of curiosity, journalist Ian Leslie points out that the popular narrative about Galileo’s battle with the Catholic Church misunderstands the moral of the story: “It’s not that the Church has any idea of the true nature of the universe. Not interested; rather, they believed that this knowledge should be the exclusive domain of those who could deal with it—that is, people like themselves.” In particular, the Church was responsive to Galileo’s publication of his in Italian rather than Latin. Find out angry. Everyone has access.
Oversimplifying complex events? Maybe. But this statement also states a literal truth. In order to condemn Galileo’s views, the Inquisitor must first read them. Their own minds obviously haven’t changed; but they worry that others will. They don’t trust potential readers.
I have long believed that acting on this distrust when we talk about what adults have access to—even in a high-sounding cause like protecting “misinformation”—represents an affront to democracy. But when we talk about impressionable young children, a certain level of concern is warranted. How we handle this mistrust is what has led to so much controversy.
For children, our wise habit is to increase their knowledge little by little. We don’t teach calculus in kindergarten. (Although maybe we should.) Few parents want their kids to read every book somewhere at home, let alone school.
In general, I believe that parents make judgments about what their children should be exposed to. The actual problem is execution. Public schools should certainly respect my desire to protect my children from certain books. But my concerns about what my own children should read do not serve as an argument for removing objectionable books from the curriculum. Of course, my fears shouldn’t be enough to compel schools – in current parlance – to “deselect” the book.
Today, schools are under pressure from all quarters. There are religious parents who want to control how sex is shown to their children, there are parents of color who are concerned that their children will encounter offensive words, and there is even a librarian accused of having books burned by Donald Trump and Ann Coulter and was fired.
But while parents should be interested in what their children read, Keller’s new Board of Education solution falls completely behind. In a library, the default should be availability, not unavailability. There should be no special files that require parental permission. Parents should use a digital popup to get their kids out, not in, during the checkout process. However, without parental choice, children should be allowed and even encouraged to roam freely in the bookshelf library.
Young people are naturally curious. We can call them curiosity machines. Leslie quotes psychologist Michelle Chouinard: “[A]Asking questions is a core part of being a child. When they were young, they asked for information. As they got older, “their questions became more exploratory”—they wanted to explain. Even in our age of diminished interest in books, libraries still It is where young people should be free to develop their natural and appropriate desire for knowledge.
Granted, no library can contain everything. Choices must be made, and choices always reflect the political culture of that era. I remember when I was young, the school shelves were filled with many patriotic books. I remember a huge tome titled “The Human Body – What It Is and How It Works” that turned out to provide very little information about how babies are made. Even classics are often downplayed to avoid references to sex—an act of literary vandalism that I didn’t realize until I was in college was the unabridged version.
This choice, however well-intentioned, represents an effort to limit young people to specific views of what matters, even views of what they should think or believe. But libraries work just the opposite – to expand, not limit, children’s understanding of the world and its possibilities.
More opinions from Bloomberg writers:
• Travelling to Portugal with colleagues? This is a new world off-site: Parmy Olson
• Look!It’s a sign that democracy isn’t completely broken: Jonathan Bernstein
• Want a better IRS?Simplifying Tax Code: Clive Crook
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a Yale law professor and most recently the author of Invisible: The Story of the Black Female Lawyer Who Brought Down America’s Most Powerful Gang.
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