By Teddy McCrann, ’23
In recent years, a debate has resurfaced within the American public school system over the presence of “controversial” books in libraries across the nation. For years, classic books such as 1984, Lord of the Flies, and Catcher in the Rye have been pervasive in English literature classes, as they teach valuable and timely lessons on society and human interaction. It was not until the 21st century and the current wave of heavy censorship regarding children’s entertainment that books such as these were even considered to be taken off of the shelves of public schools. While many of these books do contain significant levels of profanity and mature references, they more so teach American students, high schoolers in particular, not only how to read at a more advanced level but also to become aware of societal injustices and the American reality. The question remains: are these books so controversial that they should be stripped from shelves and classrooms nationwide?
Based on a recent survey taken by CBS News, more than 1,600 books were banned from school libraries across the United States in the 2021-2022 school year alone. From Massachusetts to California, in 138 districts across 32 states in total, students were forbidden from reading certain novels that have had a significant presence in English curriculums for the past century. A specific example of one of these novels is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960 and has since become one of America’s most widely read stories focusing on the foundations and consequences of racism and prejudice within our nation. It delves into the intricacies of community living and how divided individuals can be regarding situations of morality and compassion. Lee’s novel has been banned from school libraries due to the presence of racial slurs as well as Atticus Finch’s character being perceived as a “white savior,” a theme that critics argue has roots in the imperial idea that whites, or Europeans in colonial times, can solve everyone else’s problems. Both are believed to have negative effects on students. The use of racial slurs and promoting any kind of racial supremacy holds no place in American society and its school system whatsoever; however, many believe that a novel such as To Kill a Mockingbird teaches extremely valuable lessons to students, specifically in judging someone solely based on their character and nothing else. I personally read To Kill a Mockingbird in my sophomore year English class and had no issue handling its use of slurs or mature content, although I recognize a classmate of color might be impacted differently. I greatly enjoyed the novel as we mainly focused on analyzing the characters and Lee’s various messages and themes. Nevertheless, I do believe that discussing societal issues, past and present, through a novel like this and recognizing criticisms of it is a fruitful and necessary aspect of the educational process.
Book banning in today’s society mostly stems from parental concerns over the material that their children are exposed to in school. A significant number of books that are forbidden show similarities to To Kill a Mockingbird through the use of profanity, while others are banned due to their suggestive and mature content. Some of these books are dystopian classics, such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, while others are much more relevant today regarding LGBTQIA+ expression and celebration. An example of one of these works is a memoir written by George M. Johnson called All Boys Aren’t Blue, which focuses on racial and sexual identity and has been banned in 29 school districts due to its content. CBS has found that 41 percent of books that were banned in the 2021-2022 school year contained content on gender and sexuality, with many school officials attributing this to political pressures from state officials and parents. While many agree with these people and desire to keep school literature free from this type of material, others find that books on gender and sexual identity are good for representation of the diverse people in our society.
The resurfacing of the debate over book banning is no surprise as recent years have brought an increase in sensitivity regarding race, gender, sexuality, and other mature topics within entertainment and especially literature. As this has reached public school systems, more and more books have been taken off the shelves of school libraries out of concern for the students’ well-being and beliefs on these sensitive subjects, even though some of these works have been embedded in American public school curriculums for the past century. While I believe people have a right to differing opinions on sensitive subjects, I have personally found that reading “controversial” novels teaches valuable lessons and also helps to lead healthy discussions on sensitivity and perspective within all aspects of our society.