Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance.
– Laurie Halse Anderson
For years I’ve told my students, “If you don’t like to read, it’s only because you haven’t found something you like to read.” No one really hates reading; they hate being told what to read and when to read it. Then, because this mandate usually comes from a “mean teacher,” they project that hatred onto the act itself. I recall one student who – on the first day of school – declared she hated reading and would rather solve long division (she hated math, too) than read a single page of another book. By the end of the year she loved reading; all it took was a little coaching to find what she actually wanted to read.
But what happens when a book you want to read has been censored or banned? I remember looking through my school’s library in Middle School and finding all the “bad words” marked out in black sharpie (which then bled through onto the next page, effectively ruining three pages of text). What good does that do? Did they really think we couldn’t figure out what was being said? If anything, it encouraged us to find non-vandalized copies and figure out what they were hiding from us.
Those that would censor books for religious, moral, or political reasons have entirely missed the point. Now, I agree that parents should have ultimate control over what their children read, but that’s where their power ends. No one should be able to dictate what someone else reads. Doing so kills creativity, stifles healthy debate, and creates citizens incapable of rational thought. It’s not enough to say “I don’t like it because my parents don’t;” that excuse stops working around the ninth grade.
I never tell my students to read with an open mind; I tell them to read with a discerning mind. An open mind blindly accepts information; a discerning mind filters information. The problem is that censors view books the way others view television: as a babysitter. Books entertain and teach, and require a guide. Just because you want to shirk that responsibility doesn’t give you the right to violate the First Amendment.
By happy coincidence, Banned Books Week coincides with my Bill of Rights section of American Government. I have no idea how my students will react – I suspect less than half of them read voluntarily. We’ll just have to see how it goes.