Banned Books week and Zinn Education Project
This week – September 21st to 27th, 2014 – is officially called ‘Banned Books Week’, sponsored by a wide cross section of publishers, librarians, teachers etc.
Their stated purpose is:
“Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community –- librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types –- in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.”
A quick look at 2013’s banned books gives an idea of how public opinion is shaping up! The 10 most cited of the 307 challenges include “Captain Underpants,” “Fifty Shades of Grey’” “Looking for Alaska,” and “The Hunger Games.” Each was considered inappropriate for the age group it was chosen for, among other reasons.
While the First Amendment provides for freedom of speech and of the Press, concerned citizens and groups often seem determined to protect their fellow citizens against the power of the written word. See the accompanying website for this year’s celebration:
On the same page is a link to the particular books that have been banned for various reasons over time – the most-often banned book to date is still Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”!
Another useful site from the Library of Congress provides a list of the most influential books in the United States, and for Banned Books week, the following list has been extracted.
It’s interesting to see that unlike in highly repressive societies, there is no universal book-banning, or book-burning in the U.S. The task is left to libraries, bookstores and notably, school districts, to judge for themselves, and respond to local sensibilities and prevailing norms. While a certain set of parents may object to the study of particular books in their own child’s curriculum, generally common sense should carry the day. The Bill of Rights is not going to help you!
Just as this article was being prepared, the NY Times and several other news outlets featured the Jefferson County, Colorado students’ efforts to prevent their History and Social Studies Curriculum from being tampered with from a Conservative local council. http://nyti.ms/1psXawN In the article by Jack Healy of the NY Times writes that in Arvada, CO, a new conservative school board majority proposed a ‘curriculum-review committee to promote patriotism, respect for authority and free enterprise and to guard against educational materials that “encourage or condone civil disorder.” In response, hundreds of students, teachers and parents gave the board their own lesson in civil disobedience.’ As the students point out, America was founded through patriotic civil disobedience, and very little of the fundamental values of the new country has been achieved without civil disorder of the most creative kind. Censorship is alive and well, but is also a function of local beliefs and practices – I rest my case. (See also the suggested article below, by examiner Lisa Cook.)
http://bit.ly/1oih0LY for the Denver News7 account, covering several days of student protest, official reaction, and description of the issues.
Drawing attention to censorship and identifying the books being repressed is, of course, the ideal way to get people to read them! As a high school student, word spread about D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, so of course it was immediately the one book that all of us passed around and read. There was a great deal of political class conflict going on in that story, but certain ”blue” passages were the main focus of the exercise. By today’s standards not much was revealed, but that was then!
Most regimes have a much greater concern over the books which really change hearts and minds. This is where a second organization bears mentioning. Howard Zinn, with his landmark “A People’s History of the United States” (originally published in 1980 and frequently edited and updated until 2003), launched a particularly effective campaign against the sanitization and politicization of US history, especially as it is pre-packaged for schools. Since Texas is the largest market for school textbooks and has a significant sway over the viewing lens through which history is interpreted, any alternative narrative has to be a welcome addition. Words can almost never be truly neutral, and the victors, as we know so well, get to write the story of their rise and triumph! Check back to Colorado and censorship here! With many Populist narratives to his name, Zinn has a lasting legacy in the form of the Zinn Education Project. A visit to their Facebook page will provide a glimpse of the range and depth of their reach, central to which is the idea of individual agency as opposed to the larger, seemingly anonymous and paternalistic sweeps of the day. https://www.facebook.com/ZinnEducationProject
Here is Bruce Springsteen commenting recently – “A People’s History of the United States “. . . . made me feel that I was a player in this moment in history, as we all are… It gave me a sense of myself in the context of this huge American experience and empowered me to feel that in my small way, I had something to say, I could do something.”
For teachers, there are numerous teaching resources, lesson plans and discussion guides which provide depth and insight into the topics that are studied every day, in ways that empower students and help history take on relevance in their own lives. Frequent, timely links are delivered to my Facebook page, and just by following them for myself, without a particular class or topic to be taught (as a substitute) I am enlightened and given a deeper perspective.
Enjoy the journey!