Banning books is no way to protect young minds

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Banned books are back in the news. This time around they include not only the usual suspects (Toni Morrison, “The Diary of Anne Frank”) but also the Bible (“any variation”) which we are told was written by “Men who lived a long time ago.” All are on the list of volumes pulled from the shelves of libraries and classrooms in the Keller Independent School District in Texas, where a newly elected school board has decided to move every book that has been recently challenged by even one person. at the library parental consent area.

It’s not, technically, a book ban. Pending a new policy on how to handle challenges, the volumes are still accessible, provided students have parent permission. Still, I would say the district is handling a genuine concern in the worst possible way.

I am against book burning. Uh, ban. In principle, I suspect that almost everyone is. But the instinct to keep certain tomes out of the hands of young people is still present. It stems from the same source as the equally pervasive instinct to ward off dangerous ideas from adults.

A lack of trust in potential readers.

Journalist Ian Leslie, in his excellent book on the importance of curiosity, argues that popular accounts of Galilee’s battle against the Catholic Church misunderstand the moral of the story:; it was because they believed that this knowledge should remain the exclusive domain of those who were able to handle it, that is to say people like them. In particular, the church was angry that Galileo published his findings not in Latin but in Italian. Everyone had access.

Oversimplification of a complex event? Maybe. But the statement also states a literal truth. In order to condemn Galileo’s views, the inquisitors first had to read them. Their own mind obviously did not change; but they feared that others were. They were wary of potential readers.

I have long argued that when we talk about what adults can access, acting on that mistrust – even in a cause as high profile as protecting against “misinformation” – is an affront to democracy. But a degree of worry makes sense when dealing with young children with impressionable minds. How we deal with this mistrust is what leads to so much controversy.

With children, our sensible habit is to increase their knowledge little by little. We don’t teach numeracy in kindergarten. (Although maybe we should.) And few parents, if any, want their children to read every book that’s somewhere in the house, say nothing of school.

In general, I trust parents to judge what their own children should be exposed to. The practical problem is implementation. The public school should certainly respect my desire to protect my own children from a particular book. But my concerns about what my own children should read are hardly an argument for removing the offending volume from the program. My fears certainly shouldn’t be enough to force the school—in today’s slang—to “deselect” the book.

Schools today are under pressure from all directions. There are religious parents who want to control how sexuality is presented to their children, there are parents of color who fear their children will encounter offensive words, there is even a librarian who was fired for having allegedly burned books by Donald Trump and Ann Coulter.

But while parents should care about what their kids are reading, Keller’s new school board has the solution exactly upside down. In a library, the default should be availability, not unavailability. No special archives requiring parental permission should exist. Parents should have to kick kids out, not inside, maybe via a digital popup during the checkout process. In the absence of parental choice, however, children should be allowed and even encouraged to roam the library shelves as they please.

Young people are naturally curious. You could call them curiosity machines. Leslie quotes psychologist Michelle Chouinard: “[A]Asking questions is central to what it means to be a child. When they are small, they ask for information. As they get older, “their questions get deeper”; they want explanations. Even in our age of less interest in books, a library remains a place where young people should be free to give free rein to their natural and legitimate desire to know.

Certainly, no library can include everything. Choices have to be made, and they will always reflect the political culture of the time. I remember from my own youth the many patriotic books lining school shelves. I also remember that a massive volume grandiloquently titled “The Human Body – What It Is and How It Works” turned out to offer little information about how babies are made. Even the classics were often ripped off to avoid any mention of sex – an act of literary vandalism I was unaware of until college, when I read the unabridged versions.

Such choices, however well-intentioned, were an effort to restrict young people to a particular view of what matters, or even what they should think or believe. But the job of a library is exactly the opposite: to expand, not limit, children’s understanding of the world and its possibilities.

More writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• Trip to Portugal with colleagues? It’s a new world of offsites: Parmy Olson

• See! This is a sign that democracy is not totally broken: Jonathan Bernstein

• Want better IRS? Simplifying the tax code: Clive Crook

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A law professor at Yale University, he is the author, most recently, of “Invisible: the story of the black lawyer who shot down America’s most powerful gangster”.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion


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