Books Are Not For Burning

I first published this post in June of 2015, under the title The Book Burners Are at it Again. I think it bears saying again. I was angry at the time. I always get angry whenever someone with a personal agenda tries to shut down the free expression of thoughts and ideas. The link within the piece is still active, at least as of 6/6/2016.

They’re at it again. Seems a young college student and her parents were so dismayed at the content in a college English class that they have taken it upon themselves to act as Inquisitors and Protectors on behalf of all college students everywhere. God forbid that anyone should think differently than they do. Here’s the URL (you know, link) so that you can read the entire story. Just cut and paste.

This kind of thing isn’t new, of course. Dictators and tyrants, ultra conservatives, religious zealots, the closed-minded, private interest groups, etc., have tried to control what everyone can see, hear and read for as long as seeing, hearing and reading have existed. We never have a shortage of people who want to eliminate from everyone -for the good of everyone, of course- anything they personally find offensive or damaging to their agenda.  For you mathematicians the formula tends to work like this. DNMS + IF2 x (FOC + DOTI + SOM)10 = VIOTH.  For the rest of us, that’s “Degree of Narrow Minded Syndrome + Ignorance Factor squared x the combination of Fear of Change, Degree of Thought Impairment, and Size of the Mouth to a factor of 10, equals the Volume and Intensity of the Harangue. You’re welcome.

To put it all a little more simply, Those who are small minded, fearful of change, or have an agenda of dominance for their own views, will always try to control the flow of thoughts and knowledge, experiences and feelings, of and between others. They will seek to control what is said or written. Sometimes these people really believe they mean well. Frequently, not so much. Historically, one of the first things that invading despots did was to kill the teachers in the conquered territory. American slave owners prohibited the education of their slaves. Today we see the attempted repression of and terrible violence visited upon teachers and their students by organizations like ISIS and the Taliban.

The student and her parents who have started this little campaign to shut down the content of a college course are probably shocked to see themselves mentioned in the same breath as those groups. What they do not realize, because they are focused only on themselves, is this. The exclusion of ideas, the repression of speech, almost always starts this simply. What follows is the response I wrote in Facebook as soon as I read the news story:

To all of you radical, frightened, in many cases bigoted, fanatic, religious zealots, etc., who are able to make your medieval, regressive, and let me emphasize this one, IGNORANT agendas considered in your local public schools, just please shut your loud mouths and closed minds when it comes to publications/books either offered or required on college campuses. One of the most vital and important aspects of a college education is to get one’s mind opened to a larger world, bigger ideas, more universal issues and possibilities; to create open thought and greater awareness. Your child is becoming an adult. He or she is not your baby any more. You may have closeted yourself in your own tight, shuttered, closed minded little world. You have no right to try to sentence your children to the same kind of exclusionary, idea-free, exploration-free, possibility-free existence. Just..stop. Who am I to say this? I’m a TEACHER!

That may sound harsh. But let’s be clear about this. Higher education isn’t about keeping things the way they are. It’s about opening minds. It’s about ideas and experiences and exchange of information. Sometimes it’s radical, because knowledge and thought must inevitably shake up the status quo. Never has this been more so than today, with the entire world now engaged in this process across every national border.

Take a look at just a few of the classic books that have been challenged or banned because someone didn’t like their ideas.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain); Beloved (Tony Morrison); The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger); The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck); Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell); The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Malcolm X and Alex Haley); Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury); Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (Dee Brown).

Some of the most important human emotions, rights, dilemmas, and ideas are contained in those books.  They speak of the human condition. Their content cannot be marginalized by the reactions from the closed minded. Their voices must not be shut own. The more uncomfortable they make us, the more important are their ideas.

You send your child off to college to do more than learn math tables. A college university is far more than the thirteenth grade. Campuses of higher learning are just that, melting pots of people and ideas and experiences. They are laboratories of growth, incubators of critical thought and minds that seek instead of settle. You should settle no less for your child once they have left the safe and relatively conservative environs of your local public school.

If you want your child to succeed in the world, to cope, to contribute to it and expand both it and themselves for the better, you have to be prepared to let them go.  Here’s the rest of my response as it appeared on Facebook.

I understand your discomfort; however one of the things that students learn to do in college is to filter, and another is to become adept at dealing with unlikeable instructors and/or subject material they do not feel comfortable with or don’t think is relevant. If they feel that what a teacher introduces is both uncomfortable AND not particularly relevant, then they learn how to deal with that and still produce worthy work. And of course they have the counseling of their parents available, more so now than ever via phone and internet. The critical factor is they are moving forward in not just education, but in maturity, learning to make their own decisions, and discerning the good from the bad from the ugh. And parents almost always over-react to the kind of thing you describe. This is where parents develop also, in trusting their kids to process, and to make the right decisions on their own. Censorship has a place only in the rarest and most extreme of circumstances.

Counsel your child, but also trust your child. Understand that some of the ideas and content they will be exposed to on a college or university campus is not going to meet with your personal approval. Understand it and get over it. The world is home to many billions of people, the United States embraces over three hundred million. If I may paraphrase Shakespeare, there are more ideas, viewpoints, experiences, and issues out there than are dreamt of in your personal realm.

You can’t begin to eliminate everything your child is going to encounter, of which you do not approve. Why would you want to? You should be glad that there is a nurturing environment on a campus of higher learning in which she or he can  approach many of these things and reflect upon them. And remember this: your child is not the only one on that campus or in that classroom. A college or university does not, cannot devote itself to the personal preferences of Glen and Katheryn in Desloge, Missouri.  My parents would never have dreamed of wanting it that way.

Your kid is in college. Your kid is going to love a lot of it be ambivalent about a good deal of it, and moan and bitch about the rest. It’s all good. The bitching just shows that they’re thinking. That’s a good thing. Stay out of the way. It’s not your place to decide for everybody. Don’t make me get my flying monkeys.

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