Banning books is not a way to protect young minds


Banned books are back in the news. This time they include not only the usual suspects (Toni Morrison, “Anne Frank’s Diary”) but also the Bible (“Any Difference”) written by, we’re told, written by “Men Who Lived Long ago”. All are in a list of volumes taken from library and classroom shelves in the Keller Independent School District in Texas, where the newly elected Board of Education has decided to move every book that has recently been challenged, even by one person, into the library’s “parental consent zone.”

This is not, technically, a book ban. Pending implementation of a new policy on how to handle challenges, folders can still be accessed, as long as students have parental permission. However, I would suggest that the area deals with a real problem in the worst possible way.

I am against burning books. Eh, ban. In principle, I suspect that almost everyone is. But the instinct to keep some books out of the hands of young people is always there. It stems from the same source as the instinct to always be there to drive away dangerous thoughts from adults.

Lack of confidence in potential readers.

Journalist Ian Leslie, in his excellent book on the importance of curiosity, argues that popular accounts of Galileo’s battle with the Catholic Church misunderstand the moral of the story: “It was not that the Church was indifferent to the true nature of the universe; they believed that this knowledge should remain the exclusive province of those who They managed to deal with it – any people like them.” In particular, the Church was outraged that Galileo published his results not in Latin but in Italian. Everyone had access.

Oversimplifying a complex event? Probably. But the claim also points to a real fact. In order to condemn Galileo’s views, the inquisitors had to read them first. Clearly, their minds have not changed. But they were worried that others would be. They did not trust potential readers.

I’ve long argued that when we talk about what adults have access to, acting on mistrust — even on a seemingly high-profile issue like protection against “misinformation” — is an affront to democracy. But a degree of concern makes sense when we talk about young children with a vulnerable mind. How we deal with this mistrust is what leads to a lot of controversy.

With children, our reasonable habit is to increase their knowledge little by little. We don’t teach calculus in kindergarten. (Although we probably should.) And few parents want their children to read every book that is somewhere in the house, say nothing about school.

In general, I trust that parents will make judgments about what their children should be exposed to. The practical problem is implementation. A public school should definitely respect my desire to protect my children from a particular book. But my concerns about what my children should read are hardly an argument for removing the offending volume from the curriculum. Certainly my fears should not be enough to compel the school – in the present argument – to “de-select” the book.

Nowadays, schools are under pressure from across the spectrum. 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 come across offensive words, there is even a librarian who was fired for allegedly burning books by Donald Trump and Ann Coulter.

But even though parents should care about what their children read, the new Keller Board of Education has the totally backwards solution. In the library, the default should be Availability, not Unavailability. There should be no private archive that requires parental permission. Parents should opt out of children, not enter, possibly via a digital popup during the checkout process. However, in the absence of parental choice, children should be allowed and even encouraged to roam the library of shelves as they wish.

Young people are curious by nature. We might call them curiosity machines. Leslie quotes psychologist Michelle Chouinard:[A]Skating questions is an essential part of what it means to be a kid.” When they are young, they demand information. As they get older, their questions “become more inquiring” – they want explanations. Even in our days when interest in books wanes, the library remains a place to be in which young people are free to give free rein to their natural and valid desire for knowledge.

It is true that no library can include everything. Choices must be made, and they will always reflect the political culture of the era. I remember from my youth the many patriotic books lining the shelves of schools. I also remember how a huge volume titled “The Human Body – What It Is and How It Works” turned out to give so little information about how to have children. Even the classics often condone gender to avoid any mention of gender—an act of literary vandalism that I wasn’t aware of until college, when I read the unabridged versions.

Such choices, however well-meaning, represent an effort to constrain young people to a particular view of what matters, even what they should think or believe. But the function of the library is just the opposite – to expand, not limit, children’s understanding of the world and its possibilities.

More writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• A trip to Portugal with co-workers? It’s a New World of Outdoors: Parmi Olson

• a look! It’s a sign that democracy isn’t completely broken: Jonathan Bernstein

• Do you want a better IRS? Simplifying the Tax Code: Cliff Crook

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

Stephen L. Carter is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. Professor of Law at Yale University, he is the most recent author of Invisible: The Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Brought down America’s Most Powerful Gang.

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