The Role of Public Schools as Public Relations Warriors:
Perpetuating a distorted narrative of America through practiced censorship, euphemism, and white washing
This week marks the anniversary of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Banned Book Week. The theme is “Stand up for your right to read” and everyone should grab their closest of pals and rush together to check out the great ideas and resources that the ALA has put together to celebrate this freedom: http://www.ala.org/bbooks/bannedbooksweek.
While most public schools in Missouri don’t necessarily “ban” books, there are frequent challenges to content in public schools, mainly from well-intentioned parents who object to the content of a particular text. While I understand and support a parent’s right to guide her child, I find that in these cases, the decision to hide a story from a student is a cause for great concern and actually does damage to the child’s view of the world. Most districts have in place a method by which they choose age appropriate and meaningful literature for English courses, and often that selection process involves something called “community standard” — a set of shared values for the members of the community. Exactly who decides what the community’s standard is remains vague, leaving it wide open for interpretation. While the practice of using a community standard is questionable in and of itself (causing communities to stick with what they know, rather than expanding ideas outside of one’s own story), it is more disturbing that even with these methods of selection in place, in most public school districts in Missouri, a teacher is required to give an alternative text to any student or parent who asks for it — eliminating a student from the exercise of reading and discussing ideas.
There are any number of reasons to read, but one of the most important of those reasons is that reading creates a world that fosters empathy. Here are five resources that show the link between reading and empathy:
- Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction improves empathy
- Lost for Words? How reading can teach children empathy
- Bookmans Does Banned Books Virtual Read Out
- How reading Literature Cultivates Empathy
- Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind
Empathy allows human beings to relate to one another in a way that fosters open conversation and an improved bond. When people have varying perspectives and lives, empathy acts as a bridge between people so that conversations about the best way to govern, to create a just society, and to solve problems can be productive. In philosopher and author Roman Krznaric’s RSA Animate The Power of Outrospection, he explores the role that empathy has in improving our nation’s lofty and noble pursuit of protecting citizen rights and a just government of “We the people.”
When a student is eliminated from the conversation the empathy benefit of reading is stolen from her. She no longer has a place at the table, or a voice in the collective “we”. What makes matters worse, is that the books that are most often challenged by parents, are the books most likely to provide insight into a deep-seated story that is told and reflected in the culture with few challenges to the notion. Stereotypes, misunderstandings, and (even worse) unchallenged projections of a harmful “truth” can be, and often are, denounced in literature in a way that causes a student to think, reflect, and grow. Mary – Your post also makes me think about the TEDTalk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story.” You certainly have great content here, but along with the hindering of developing empathy, only hearing one narrative allows stereotypes to develop and the reader to have a limited knowledge of a whole people.
The most frequently challenged books are diverse books, according to the Association of American Publishers. In its article Why Diverse Books are Frequently Banned, the association revealed an alarming truth that “While 37% of the U.S. population are people of color, only 10% of books published focus on multicultural content. In addition, ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, has determined that 52% of the books challenged, or banned, over the past decade are from titles that are considered diverse content.” The article continues by saying that the most common reason a book is challenged is because of “parental outcry”. I surveyed a few educators from several regions in Missouri and all teachers reported that they were required to “provide an alternate assignment” and one even said they offer instead, “pre-made units that we’ve purchased over the years for books that have the same themes, concepts as the class texts.” Most confessed that “community standard” plays a role in book selection, “we have a pretty conservative community, and I think they would lean more toward censorship than not if an issue arose.” The weight of this dilemma is obvious. Among the books with diverse content that were most challenged this year are titles that deal with America’s policies toward African Americans throughout history, America’s interpretation of the Iranian Revolution, adolescents who are discovering their gender or sexual identity.
Community standard principle and concerned parents, no doubt, limit the story that public school children learn, but sometimes it is the nostalgia of the educator that is at the root of censorship. For instance, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, is among the list of novels that is most often taught in public schools. People love the story of young Scout learning to step in another’s shoes in order to empathize with them. Her father, Atticus, is revered as one of the outliers of his time, who in the book’s 1930’s setting steps up to defend a black man against accusations of rape against a white woman. He instills many lessons to young Scout about doing the right thing for the right reason, and he is a literary hero because of it. But in 2015 that we learned that To Kill A Mockingbird wasn’t Harper Lee’s vision at all. Since Lee herself was reclusive, was scarcely interviewed, and didn’t publish anything beyond a few short pieces after Mockingbird, we never heard her truth, but when her publisher released Go Set A Watchman, that changed. It’s told that in light of Mockingbird’s success, Lee didn’t want Watchman released. I need to pause and say that if you haven’t read Go Set a Watchman, you should, but I am afraid I can’t write this blog without a few spoilers, so I apologize up front. That said, I’ll try to be vague enough that it will still be worth the read. Watchman is the manuscript that Lee originally sent in as To Kill A Mockingbird. It is set in 1950s and while in Mockingbird we hear the story from the point of view of a young Scout, in Watchman, she is grown up. It’s no surprise that the little girl in Mockingbird saw her father as a hero, and it should come as no surprise that when she returns to Maycomb county as a young adult, she sees her town and her father differently; it is how much differently that is unnerving to the fans of Atticus. Historically, the first draft (Go Set a Watchman) makes much more sense: Atticus doesn’t agree to defend Tom because he believes in justice, he agrees to defend Tom in order to ensure that the NAACP didn’t come to town to defend him. Adult Scout finds pamphlets talking about “the black plague” among her father’s papers and follows him into a meeting where she learns that he is involved in a group called the KKK. When Scout finally confronts her father, Atticus tells her that “black people are not ready for full civil rights”. This is the portrayal that Harper Lee intended and the book was completely changed by her publisher. The purpose of changing the story can only be guessed, but it clearly had the result of helping white people to deal with their guilt. It purified a portion of history. With the knowledge of the Atticus of Watchman, I contend that it is irresponsible to continue to teach the story of Atticus of Mockingbird in isolation. Yet, many teachers refuse to teach the second book because it distorts the image that they have formed of Atticus. This means that students hear a single story of a heroic white attorney who defends an innocent black man against bogus charges of rape, and despite his defense, the man is found guilty.
There is legitimate danger in the practice of one-sided stories. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie presented for TED Talks of The danger of a single story. It is easy to see the cultural, political, and personal harm of the practice of censorship; through banning or challenging of books, and poor methods of novel selection in schools — limiting the scope of literature to a white-washed story of America — stereotypes persist and opportunities for empathy decrease. Kick off this Banned Book Week by celebrating our freedom to read. Find out what novels are being taught in your local public schools and, if necessary, reach out to plea for more diversity in texts, a more advanced method of selection of materials, and a compromised policy with parents and students who challenge the texts. Likewise, teachers can play a role in easing parental skepticism by encouraging parents to read along with your class, and offering book discussion groups jointly with students and parents, and encourage open dialogue. We know very well that we are stronger when we work as partners and this week is a good week to focus on just one more way of doing that.