Editorial: On Assigned Reading and Banned Books

So, you may have heard the news that a school in Minnesota has removed two classic pieces of literary work from their assigned reading list. This decision isn’t without its controversy. It brings up the arguments surrounding banned books. Now, I will NEVER even pretend to support banning books. I will never stand by while education, free speech, and our most basic values are thrown to the side. Now, the situation in schools is a little different, and at the very least ridiculous. Schools ban books for some really odd reasons. In fact, while I was in high school, my own school district decided to ban a book in certain age groups. The people behind that decision argued its sexual content was unsuitable for middle school students, and so was banned in all middle school libraries. That book? The Fault in our Stars.

Now, some people are reacting to the decision regarding Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird as if it were a ban. And it’s not. That school just isn’t requiring students to read them. Again, I don’t deny the literary value that these books have. They are incredibly influential parts of the American identity. But, I can really see the logic behind removing it from required reading lists. The main reason that these books are no longer required is because of a certain word that is used really liberally throughout. I will refrain from using the word here, but it rhymes with one of Winnie the Pooh’s good friends. And that word is really uncomfortable. In more ways than one.

Now, I read Huckleberry Finn on my own, and I read To Kill a Mockingbird as part of my eighth grade English class. And the reactions were divided. Now, some of the time we would read the book aloud as a class and discuss it, and sometimes the teacher would play an audiobook version while we read along and paused to discuss. Which meant that daily over the course of a few weeks, we would hear that word over and over again. Some of my classmates even saw the excuse to say it without consequence. And despite that uncomfortable experience, I don’t think that the book should be banned. But I do see the merit in not requiring it anymore.

It’s difficult to judge whether a class or an individual student is really mature enough to grasp the very deliberate use of that word in the books. Just the fact that I am refraining from writing it here in an example of how powerful and visceral that word is. I would not consider either of these works to be racially insensitive in and of themselves. In fact, the people that use that word are in the wrong, and they typically realize the error of their ways. Scout realizes that just because other kids use that word, that doesn’t mean that it’s okay to use. Huckleberry stops referring to Jim with that word, recognizing his humanity. But some students will only see the use of that taboo word, and either be shocked or fascinated, as was the case in my experience.

The factor that really makes me okay with this decision is that the books aren’t banned. Any student that wishes to read these stories and see these lessons learned is free to do so. If these books are in the library, then they stay in the library. If a teacher sees a student reading these books of their own volition, they are not under any obligation to discipline the student. Students have the opportunity to approach these important works at a pace that allows them to truly understand what their authors wanted to say about the times that they lived in.

Which really makes me think about required reading in general. I won’t pretend that I don’t hate it. Even as an avid reader, all my live I couldn’t stand to be forced to do something. I know it’s necessary to have some sort of required reading to push students out of their comfort zones and to build curriculum,  but really so long as books are freely available for students to access, English classes can still teach what they need to teach. Plus, nobody is stopping teachers from putting together a “recommended reading” list that includes these two classics. Again, banning books in general is a slap in the face to the free distribution of ideas. But the removal of these two books from the required reading lists of one school isn’t really censorship or a ban. And I’m confident that students that can appreciate these books will find a way to read them. They’ve lasted this long, and this is far from the first time they’ve been challenged. They’re going to be fine, they’re not going anywhere, and this will only make them stronger.

 

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