Op-ed by Sungjoo Yoon (originally in The New York Times):
In late 2020, when the Burbank Unified School District removed five classic novels from required reading lists in my city’s classrooms, I started a petition to protest the decision. The petition, still open, has more than 5,000 signatures.
I was a sophomore in Burbank High School at the time and had read four of the five books in school – “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” by Mildred D. Taylor, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee and “The Cay” by Theodore Taylor. The fifth, “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck, I read alone a few years earlier.
The books were removed from the core curriculum, according to Burbank Unified District Superintendent Matt Hill, after complaints from students and parents that depictions of racism and language in these works — particularly the use of N-word – caused harm to black students.
My position was this: I recognized that black students were marginalized in our classrooms (I was also sympathetic; I know the demeaning nature of racism all too well) – but I didn’t think it was the fault of these books or their contents. I believed, and still believe, that the solution was not to remove the books but to add books written by people of color and better train teachers to teach these books sensitively to students.
As the petition drew signatures, I spoke at several school board meetings on the issue. I remember one meeting in particular. I had come prepared to talk about how these novels helped shape me both as a student and as a human being. I spoke briefly about how reading the story of a black family in the Deep South in “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” under the guidance of a caring teacher, moved me to tears. and a commitment to learn more about the resilience and resilience of the people on whose backs this country was built. I explained how these class experiences helped me and some classmates grow from simple, complacent citizens to people who today are deeply involved in the struggle for social justice.
There was more than I could have said: how Tom Robinson’s defense of Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” taught me the danger of complacency; how the unlikely friendships of Huckleberry Finn and Jim in “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or Phillip Enright and Timothy in “The Cay” taught me that love transcends all differences.
But standing on the conference room floor as comments from other meeting attendees began, I watched the public forum — made up mostly of parents, administrators and educators — turn into tribalist dissent. The meeting quickly became a two-sided shouting match pitting supposed “freedoms” against supposed “justice.” There was much arguing but little or no meaningful discussion about why these novels were in question or what students would lose or gain by banning them.
At that moment, I had a long-awaited realization: the way we as Americans approach restrictions on literature programs is not only flawed but also totally reactionary. My experience at this meeting and others has convinced me that the issue is not that we disagree, but how. We need to move the focus away from reflexive indignation about restrictions and prohibitions and towards real discussions about the merits and drawbacks of each book.
Nearly a year and a half later, Burbank’s book restriction is still in place, and more have been approved in schools and school districts across the country. A PEN America report this month found that 86 school districts in the United States banned 1,586 books in the past year. From the Tennessee School Board ruling that Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust graphic novel “Maus” could no longer be taught, to the Oklahoma State Legislature’s bill giving a parent of any student has the power to enforce a ban on “sex” books. to the sweeping removal of 130 sex-themed books from school shelves at the behest of a Texas superintendent, one element unites all of the conflict around these bans — political and ideological partisanship that buys more in wars. contemporary cultures than in our students. education.
An often overlooked fact in these disputes is that conservatives and liberals engage in banning and suppressing books when it suits their political goals. Burbank is a liberal stronghold where the majority of voters in the last five presidential elections have voted Democrats; Granbury, the Texas district that removed all 130 books this year for “pervasively vulgar” content or “pornography” — in what many believe is code to cover up bias against those who identify as LGBTQ — is a conservative stronghold who voted Republican in those same five elections.
Americans, conditioned to resist violations of our “freedom” at every turn, tend to reflexively reject literary censorship. But we often forget that these kinds of book bans don’t institute nationalized book burning or punishments for reading books; rather, it is about deciding whether certain groups of children are emotionally or developmentally ready for certain books. The truth is that all schools have curricula and deciding what is included and what is not is a critical responsibility that involves subjective decisions about what is best for students. And I want to give some deference to that notion.
When I was 10, I found myself voraciously reading about WWII; along this path, I picked up a copy of Iris Chang’s 1997 book, “The Rape of Nanjing.” Two chapters later, as the executions of innocent children my age were described in detail, I learned that the content of the historical narrative was about as embarrassing as the title itself. Terrified and upset, I put the book down and put it in the back of my closet.
Has my aversion to this book negated the seriousness of the war crimes committed on the Sino-Japanese front? Absolutely not. But did that show that I was probably too young to read it? Yes. Both principles can be true simultaneously: some books can be important to society while being upsetting or harmful to a child. We can and should reject the fake binary being sold to us today, because there is some value in restricting the curriculum to children when those decisions are informed by knowledge of books and student abilities.
I hope that the adults who make the decisions about our schools and educations and those who fuel public arguments about them can end their hyperpartisanship and help us start rigorous conversations about the content and value of the books themselves. same.
Because at that meeting, I never got to say what those other books had done for me.