Censorship and the Fear of Free Thought – Dropping Great Books From Curriculum

When Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451, he was living in a time of the rising Cold War and the end of Nazism.

The novel is a futuristic look (in 1950) into what society might be like if reading books were banned by the government. Firemen, who were the government workers who burned rogue books, would use a fire that reached 451 degrees Fahrenheit to incinerate written works of imagination and free thought. It was a way to control the people. It was a way to keep their minds from being curious and imaginative. It kept them from being “free.”

Today, around 50,000 copies are still sold a year of the classic dystopian novel and it is a staple in many junior classes in North Carolina as well as middle school gifted classes. Its message is still very relevant today.

The main character in the novel is Guy Montag, a conflicted fireman, who befriends a man named Faber (an old English professor) who explains why great books are so important. Faber lists three reasons:

  1. Books have “quality” of information.
  2. Books provide “leisure to digest it” (information).
  3. Books give us the “right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two” (information and time to digest).

Simplified in a crude and dirty manner – books promote free thought and interaction with ideas.

As an English teacher, I tend to cringe at the thought of books that have that very quality and ability to engage thought in young people being banned or challenged by people who believe that they know what is best for others without proper investigation.

That does not mean that I want to all of a sudden make Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint a staple in high schools or make all freshmen read Lolita by Nabokov. But I do want them to read works of literature that have value and insight into the human condition.

That’s why I cringe when school systems pull works of high literary merit from the curriculum because of perceived “risks.” From The Guardian:

A school district in Minnesota has pulled To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from its curriculum, arguing that the classic novels’ use of racial slurs risked students being “humiliated or marginalised”.

The Duluth school district will keep the titles in its libraries, but from the next school year, they will be replaced on the curriculum for ninth and 11th-grade English classes, according to local newspaper the Bemidji Pioneer (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/12/hurtful-harper-lee-mark-twain-dropped-from-minnesota-curriculum-to-kill-a-mockingbird-duluth).

For this English teacher, this action spells censorship and more governmental control over what is read by students in Minnesota and North Carolina. It screams that free thought, interaction with unknown ideas, and expressions of differing viewpoints should not be allowed in high schools.

That would hurt students. Remember the nomination of Todd Chasteen to the North Carolina State Board of Education  by Gov. McCrory to appease the very conservative coalition in power in Raleigh?

Mr. Chasteen was vetted in a report by Lindsay Wagner when she worked as the education correspondent for NC Policy Watch. Her April 24, 2015 report entitled “Censorship controversy, thin record spark concerns over McCrory’s State Board of Ed nominee” talked of Chasteen’s effort to ban a book from his area’s schools (http://www.ncpolicywatch.com/2015/04/24/censorship-controversy-thin-record-spark-concerns-over-mccrorys-state-board-of-ed-nominee/).

Chasteen’s efforts in banning a book called The House of the Spirits from a Watauga County classroom garnered a lot of media, especially when it was revealed that his boss at the time, Franklin Graham, was also actively trying to have it banned as well. According to Chasteen the book was simply a vehicle for promiscuity. He said,

“If the Bible contained the 59 sexual references and the graphic, descriptive detail of The House, my kids would not read the Bible, nor would I. Mr. Mckay stretched to find a few violent, non-descript stories in the Bible of 1500 pages. The House, 59 depictions in 430 pages, a pattern, pervasive vulgarity, and very descriptive. The Bible, as non-graphic, does not say that King David enjoyed “the dark, hot, juicy cavern of her _____.” This is not a mere nuance. The reading of the Bible does not produce sensual arousal.”

Ironically, the Bible does talk about David having multiple wives and when he met Bathsheba, he actually had her first husband placed in the front lines of war to ensure he would be killed. Maybe there was not anything graphic since it is biblical diction, but it doesn’t sound wholesome. Then, of course, David begat Solomon (he of 700+ wives) from Bathsheba, and Solomon was the “wisest man who ever lived.” That is unless you talk to Jim, the slave from Huckleberry Finn.

There is that wonderful exchange on the river between the truant, irreverent Huck and the runaway slave.

“Yit dey say Sollermun de wises’ man dat ever live’. I doan’ take no stock in dat. Bekase why would a wise man want to live in de mids’ er sich a blim-blammin’ all de time? No—’deed he wouldn’t. A wise man ’ud take en buil’ a biler-factry; en den he could shet DOWN de biler-factry when he want to res’.”

“Well, but he WAS the wisest man, anyway; because the widow she told me so, her own self.”

“I doan k’yer what de widder say, he WARN’T no wise man nuther. He had some er de dad-fetchedes’ ways I ever see. Does you know ’bout dat chile dat he ’uz gwyne to chop in two?”

“Yes, the widow told me all about it.”

“WELL, den! Warn’ dat de beatenes’ notion in de worl’? You jes’ take en look at it a minute. Dah’s de stump, dah—dat’s one er de women; heah’s you—dat’s de yuther one; I’s Sollermun; en dish yer dollar bill’s de chile. Bofe un you claims it. What does I do? Does I shin aroun’ mongs’ de neighbors en fine out which un you de bill DO b’long to, en han’ it over to de right one, all safe en soun’, de way dat anybody dat had any gumption would? No; I take en whack de bill in TWO, en give half un it to you, en de yuther half to de yuther woman. Dat’s de way Sollermun was gwyne to do wid de chile. Now I want to ast you: what’s de use er dat half a bill?—can’t buy noth’n wid it. En what use is a half a chile? I wouldn’ give a dern for a million un um.”

Would Todd Chasteen want to now ban Huck Finn? It goes against the Bible. Or would he want to ban it for the reasons that that Minnesota district did?

Back to the Guardian article:

Duluth’s director of curriculum and instruction Michael Cary told the Pioneer that his department wanted to be considerate of all its students, and that there were other literary options that “teach the same lessons” as To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn without containing racial slurs. The N-word is used frequently in both titles – more than 200 times in Mark Twain’s 19th-century novel – but both are widely considered anti-racist texts.

“We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn’t require students to feel humiliated or marginalised by the use of racial slurs,” said Carey.

 

 

With a bias toward anti-liberal arts, this is the very action that Bradbury warns us against. I can just imagine my current school board challenging the very list of books used often in my junior English classes.

  • Scarlet Letter for the out-of-wedlock child of a clergyman with a married woman.
  • Huck Finn for the language and that Solomon bit.
  • The Great Gatsby because it promotes adultery and drinking and a worship of money.
  • The Crucible because of, well, witches.
  • Of Mice and Men because of the language and violent scenes.

They would also have to consider banning Shakespeare – all of it. The Bard is well-known for his use of bawdy and vulgar language.

And considering that the new budget doesn’t offer much in new resource monies, I may not be able to procure multiple titles of books that would be allowed in schools. Why won’t public schools have that money? Because many private schools and other religious affiliated institutions that may teach the coexistence of dinosaurs and humans and that the earth is literally only a few thousand years old will be getting that money through an expanding voucher system.

The free thought and investigation of other viewpoints would not be fostered in those places as much. That would be catastrophic.

Plus it’s an infringement on the First Amendment and freedom of speech. If you have never seen the movie Field of Dreams, then you should just for the PTA meeting scene where a parent is trying to have a book banned from the school based on its use of language.

The woman says,

“Mr. Harris, the so-called novels of Terence Mann endorse promiscuity , godlessness, the mongrelization of the races, and disrespect to high-ranking officers of the United States Army . And that’s why right-thinking school boards all across the country having been banning this man’s S-H-l- since 1969 . Terence Mann? You know why he stopped writing books. Because he masturbates.”

In the movie, Terrance Mann had won the Pulitzer Prize. High praise if you ask me.

To Kill a Mockingbird won a Pulitzer. Huck Finn has been called the foundation of American novels. That’s high praise as well.

Annie Kinsella, wife of the protagonist Ray in the movie responds beautifully,

“Who wants to burn books? Who wants to spit on the Constitution of the United States of America? Anybody? All right. Now, who’s for the Bill of Rights? Who thinks freedom is a pretty darn good thing? Come on ! Come on ! Let’s see those hands ! Who thinks we have to stand up to the kind of censorship they had under Stalin? All right. There you go.”

Ray Bradbury would have known of Stalin. Maybe that’s what he was thinking about when he wrote F451.

Because he saw what censorship could do to a people.

Maybe the leadership of that school district in Minnesota should put it on their own reading list.

 

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