Censorship: An Argument for Choice

Censorship and young adult literature are almost synonymous. When I taught high school English, I remember hearing many stories about how parents challenged novels and short stories that they felt were inappropriate. One year, a colleague argued in front of the district board of education against a parent who wanted I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings taken off the English curriculum because of a rape scene. Of course, Maya Angelou’s novel is not considered YA, but it stands to reason that if a rape scene in a novel that has been taught in schools for years, think of the censorship that goes on with today’s young adult literature as these books make their way into public classrooms.

Before you have a knee-jerk reaction and immediately throw around the argument presented in Fahrenheit 451let me say that there are valid points in favor of questioning the works we teach. I am reminded of a story by Professor Adam Laats about teaching a certain book to kids at a private Catholic high school. (He tells the story much better than I could, so I recommend you read it.) In his story, he suggests that a teacher who requires the reading of a book is just as guilty of imposing beliefs on others as those who try to censor said book. This certainly had me thinking differently about censorship and my liberal perspective of the books we teach.

If I believe that a certain book has something important to offer a child, then out of respect for the upbringing of the child I must also place equal importance on whether or not the parent shares these same values–or at least whether or not the parent shares the values of simply challenging their child’s beliefs. As a teacher, I believe that a life that goes unchallenged is not a life worth living, but who am I to impose these challenges within the readings I assign? Couldn’t I possibly be challenging ideals and principles that parents work so hard to instill in their children? And if we don’t question these impositions, aren’t we telling parents that we know what’s best for their children?

Personally, I think all of this can be solved through the element of choice. We know too much about how kids develop as readers, so the use of whole class novels shouldn’t be commonplace (sadly, this is not reality). So even if you don’t agree with the research on choice and reading instruction, you should at least consider what it is you’re imposing on your students by requiring them to all read the same book. We have no problem accepting that students have different reading abilities, so we should just as easily accept that they come to us with different sets of values, and these values require the same amount of respect from their English teacher.

McConn

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10 thoughts on “Censorship: An Argument for Choice

  1. I love how you got me thinking with this post, Matt. I tend to be pretty lenient in terms of what I allow in my classroom library, too. Especially the information from Laats that teachers who require students to read certain books are just as guilty of imposing beliefs on others as are censors. Thanks for this!
    Margaret

    • Yep, it’s definitely a more humble perspective. Not that I would take away any titles from my classroom library, though. And the argument plays well into having choices for kids.

  2. I do not know a lot about censorship in the classroom because I am neither a teacher nor going to school for my teaching certificate. However, I can understand how censorship would be an important topic for an English classroom. I believe there is a key difference between requiring all students in a class to read a book with controversial topics compared to small reading groups. Even in a small reading group, I would give the students a list of books that they will be assigned in their group to bring home and get initialed by their parents. For any book that has topics that could be offensive, it’s better to be safe than sorry with getting parental permission.

    Although I would seek parental permission, I wouldn’t eliminate powerful books from my reading lists because they contain controversial topics. I personally think that a lot of young adult novels would be unfairly censored, such as Blankets, even though they are novels that would appeal to adolescents. Additionally, if a parent complained to me about some of the novels on my list that they didn’t agree with, I would discuss how many television shows and even commercials contain things that would be censored if they were written in a book. It may be more beneficial for a young adult to read about a character’s thought process regarding a taboo topic, such as premarital sex, drugs, or alcohol, than for their first experience with these topics to be firsthand. Knowledge is powerful, and the more viewpoints a person can learn about a topic will allow them to make the most informed decision.

  3. As a classic middle child, I grew up wanting to reading books that challenged the norm (as a 16-year-old, my favorite author was Daniel Quinn) to not only expand my way of thinking but also to try and piss my parents off. Luckily, not much bothered them, so I was able to read whatever I wanted without worry. I realize now how very lucky I was to have never been censored in my own personal reading. A teacher actually gave me my first Quinn book and I was never concerned that reading the book in school would be an issue. We had discussions about the book in his classroom, again, with zero concern that anyone would tell me not to read or discuss the book. But the distinction is that the book was not being taught whole-class. The books were available to me within school, but never would the book have been read with my entire class.

    I like the distinction presented, however. While my way of thinking most definitely leans sharply one way, that by no one means determines how I should teach. Throughout my schooling, I have had almost all of my teachers refuse to share their own personal beliefs (political, religious, or otherwise) in the classroom. They argue that the classroom is not the place for them to do so. I didn’t realize how important that was until now (and I frankly hadn’t thought of why that would be important until now). Adolescents are incredibly vulnerable and impressionable. High school is a time when they begin to figure out what they believe. By presenting texts with an “agenda”, however subtle it may be, a teacher is giving a student their own beliefs to begin to buy in to. A student may agree, but it is their own time to come to these beliefs on their own. By having texts in a classroom library that could represent a spectrum of different beliefs, a teacher is offering a portal into a new way of thinking for the student without handing them the keys to the proverbial portal.

    Despite the previous paragraph, I still have a question. If a parent has a problem with a certain text, what is their main concern? If the book is a student’s choice to read, shouldn’t the discussion occur between the student and the parent, not the parent and the teacher? What frightens a parent so much about a particular kind of text that they want the book banned from a school? As I am not a parent, I am genuinely curious.

  4. I don’t think a teacher has to censor the YA Lit he or she offers in the classroom, but I do think it’s important to consider parents’ opinions/feelings about what their children are reading in the classroom. If a parent is contesting a selected reading, most likely their reasoning is backed by their wanting to protect their child from something. Parents, for the most part, have an overwhelming need to protect their child/children. I say this because it’s important to realize that most likely a parent is not complaining just to make a teacher’s life miserable. They probably have genuine concerns. As teachers we need to consider and respect the wishes of our students’ parents. Hear the parent out. You may be able to address their concerns and change their mind. But if not, respect their wishes.

  5. I believe that the censorship of novels, particularly young adult novels, is a bit absurd. Any controversial material or content that may be in a young adult novel should not be so shocking, since the majority of adolescents I am sure have already had exposure to these things or read/seen/heard about them in other contexts, in other places, and from other people. Just as we would not deny literacy to our youth, we should not deny them the right to read what they want to read. With that being said, a scene in a certain book might bring back a painful memory to a certain student, so that should always be considered on the part of the teacher. Yes, parents should be involved in the literature we select for their child to read, but at the same time (and depending on grade level) these students are well on their way to becoming adults in their own right, free to make their own decisions. It is our job to expose these soon-to-be adults to things that might make them a bit uncomfortable in an effort to play on their emotions, move them, challenge their viewpoints, and turn them into the “thinkers” that the world needs them to be. Perhaps on the first day of school, the teacher can send the students home with a list of the literature they will be reading for their parents’ review, with a short summary and list of controversial scenes/themes for each. I think that is reasonable; they are their parents after all. As far as what I would do if a parent protests, I guess I will have to educate myself further on what the next step would be. I also think that giving students choice is important, and we should encourage our students to read at least one non-school book per quarter (with SSR time given during class periodically). This, hopefully, will also yield a few future pleasure readers per year when students realize that reading is fun when we are given the agency to choose the material we want. I think that is the beauty of reading and in my opinion, should not be censored or restricted.

  6. Censorship in the classroom is a highly debatable topic in education today. Famous works that every child should be introduced to are sometimes scrutinized for their word usage or topic choice. Educators find it is difficult to find a happy medium with boundaries in literature. There are many considerations that need to be taken into account when deciding to incorporate questionable content. While choice should be a factor in deciding this, parental consent is an important piece of the puzzle that needs to be addressed. If parents are not on the same page as the teacher then it will create issues. Although teachers do not need parent approval to teach, it may be helpful in creating a more open classroom environment where parents are supportive of the teacher. The teacher needs to be honest with parents and explain the rationale for teaching certain pieces in the classroom. If this happens then the teacher is more apt to not receive any backlash for teaching literature that is questionable.
    Another factor that needs to go into making decisions about literature is the makeup of the class. If the class is not mature enough to read and understand the controversial issues in the text then it may be more appropriate to not incorporate such pieces into the classroom. However, it is very difficult to get students talking about literature. These types of books are a good conversational piece and touch upon topics that are relatable to young adolescence. For students to be able to relate to what they are reading will encourage them to read further and create deeper connections. Censorship is a difficult topic to tackle in the classroom. As a teacher you want to open your students to great works that touch upon controversial issues because it is important to expose adolescents to all different types of works. When I have my own classroom it will be a difficult balance, but I believe students need to be exposed to certain pieces to give them an all-around enjoyable literature experience.

  7. We talked a couple of weeks ago about books being a way for someone to experience something that they normally would not be exposed to, or for a person to know that there are others out there that might be in the same boat. Reading a book might be able to help them either understand the world or their own lives.

    With that being said, in today’s world, there’s not a lot that a kid will not be exposed to in some way, shape or form either in the media or in their peer group. I feel that reading about something is way better than seeing a graphic image or video on the television, internet, or other media source- usually because it’s presented in a context, or story and it would help that person understand the impact of the objectionable material rather than just a snippet of it.

    Parents tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to what is being read in a classroom. If they have read the book and don’t feel that its suited for their child then they have a right to oppose the book. If they are basing their opinions on rumors or what they read on the internet then I have a problem with their problem with said text.

    For objections in terms of Young Adult Literature, like Alexie’s, I would be more tolerant of a parent challenging a title based on an informed view of the book. Some kids, frankly, are not ready to read a book that has references to masturbation- they are not mature enough to handle that subject.

    These kids are also probably not able to move past the references and consider the more important issues the novel covers- the conditions on an Indian Reservation, and the impact of the reservation way of life on a teenager.

  8. I’ve always struggled with the idea of censorship, especially in the classroom. To me it seems absurd to limit what a student should be exposed to. I think my resentment of censorship stems from my very guarded upbringing. My parents tried to shield me from the world and censor everything around me. Even though I love my parents dearly, I can’t help but feel that they were wrong in their attempts to keep me separate from a “secular world.” I understand that they did it out of love and because they were concerned about me… but it doesn’t take away from the fact that they were attempting to force beliefs on me and separate me from reality. I believe adolescents should be exposed to a variety of texts and situations to allow them to begin shaping their own beliefs. However, I do understand that students are young and impressionable and I believe that it is crucial that teachers do not push their own beliefs or immoral behavior.

    I loved everything that Meg Faughnan said especially when she posed the question, “what frightens a parent so much about a particular kind of text that they want the book banned from a school?” I guess that is my main question as well. I can understand that parents know their children best and are simply trying to protect them. I can understand that if parents know that a child is severely depressed because of a sexual abuse situation perhaps they wouldn’t want their child reading anything dealing with these situations. However, would it really be necessary to ban the entire school from reading something that they didn’t want their child reading? I do think a discussion should occur between the student, parents, and the teacher.

    I suppose the main complaint from parents is probably that they don’t want their children reading anything that promotes immoral behavior and really that does make perfect sense. A teacher needs to be prepared to defend any text that they are providing students. If a teacher can’t explain why that text is in the school, maybe the parents have a valid reason to be concerned. However, I cannot help but think parents are ignorant when they try and ban a book like Huckleberry Finn because of the excessive use of the N word when all the student needs to do is hop on facebook and instagram to see the same word a million times. In YA literature, there are going to situations that parents hope that their children never experience in real life but does that mean that these students should never grapple with the idea of these situations?

  9. I believe censorship can be viewed as an important topic through YA literature in classrooms. YA literature is a way to bring out sensitive topics that students might not be familiar with yet. Sensitive topics that are often avoided can be expressed through YA literature. As an individual that has no plans of becoming an English teacher, I believe it is important for English teachers to be knowledgeable about all literature in the classrooms. English teachers need to take a stance and be able to defend why they believe sensitive topics that arise in certain YA literature can be beneficial to students. In today’s society, I believe parents/guardians are even more protective than in the past. Also, I feel parents/guardians are more involved with the education their children are receiving. A teacher needs to be able to defend themselves when questioned about the literature being read in their classrooms.

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