There has been a resurgence of calls for the removal of objectionable books from public school classrooms. Such calls can come from all types of people, motivated by a range of concerns or ideologies.
In fact, there seems to be a sort of resonance in which perceived threats of indoctrination create a distorted mirror of requests for prohibition or cancellation, in the interest of protecting students’ rights to autonomous thinking.
After all, if social media declares JK Rowling to be transphobic, then the Harry Potter book series must be riddled with prejudices that no child should consume. Or if, as some book banners claim, Toni Morrison’s book Beloved constitutes pornography or prejudice against history, then this Nobel Prize winner must be deleted. Rowling and Morrison are – note the book banners – prominently in my high school class.
It is, however, possible that many people who say they are opposed to indoctrination are sacrificing the most powerful weapon that can be used to resist indoctrination: the ability to read a book and have a civil argument over it. his value.
I tell my students that with the divide between alternate realities as stark as it is now, it is very urgent to convince people to listen to opposing points of view. So if they have to argue, they can do so without violence or exaggeration of the chasms that already divide us – without irreparable loss of civility in speech.
Today, when I entered my class (I arrive early, often to invent exercises to generate critical thinking in students who are far from recovering from months of diminished or distorted teaching), I was struck. – I don’t know why – by all the books I keep in the room. My goal has always been to encourage students, by all possible ethical means, to borrow my books, to read for pleasure and not just to meet an academic requirement.
This year, very few of my books are on loan. I have two new copies of Dune; they both went out, because Dune is a major film. It’s trendy. But the students who have the books don’t read much (they ask why they should, now that the film is available).
And other books? They seem (they have seemed for a few years now) alone as they sit unused, unopened, on their shelves. I know: books don’t really have feelings.
Still, I grew up thinking of books as my best friends, and my best social experiences have always involved discussions about books. I spent a sleepless night arguing with an Italian friend over who was the third most important Hobbit in The Lord of the Rings. (I said it was Sam Gamgee; he backed Merry Brandybuck.) There was no resolution, but it was a fun fight, because we had as common ground the fierce belief that to such disputes are fundamentally consistent with the value of Tolkien’s work.
This debate was a long time ago; Maybe it could happen again, but – and this is an indescribable source of grief to me – it will probably never happen among my students. They don’t read for fun.
When I was their age, I sacrificed anything else, certainly including my homework, for my books. Now the books seem more of an indelible mark of an insurmountable chasm between me and the people who will run the world when I’m gone.
My books are lonely, a metaphor for my own deep loneliness and isolation from the excitement that comes with the experience of discussing the shared experience of a book. I wonder if the world that supplanted the one I grew up in is any better.
We now have social media and social media echo chambers, and now people no longer have to confront opposing views with a sense of common ground. We fight over who is silencing whom, or which “side” is indoctrinating the other.
I am still convinced that the books on my shelf could allow civility and a sense of common ground to moderate such fights, if only the books were not so carefully left alone in the rush for a source of more gratification. instant, less demanding.
David Newman is a high school teacher in Odessa. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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