Literature Sans Controversy: A Disservice to Students

This is an adaptation of my final senior thesis paper. I hope you enjoy!

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Did you know that sometimes books are banned in schools?

For one reason or another certain books have been banned and challenged since the very beginning of their existence. Banning books is not a new concept; it is an issue that has not only been fought within a circle of public accessibility, but also more relevantly to this post it is and has been a prominent issue in the secondary school system. There are a multitude of reasons why certain books have been banned. A few of the primary reasons behind banning are because they contain one or more controversial subjects such as race, sexuality, and violence.

Why are they banned?

Generally, reasons for administrators and teachers banning books containing controversial material is simply because some content is blatantly deemed inappropriate for high schoolers. Another reason for books being banned in the secondary classroom is due to parental concerns and complaints brought to the administration. Regardless of who raises red flags about the literary content, there is usually a lot of discomfort that clings to necessary yet difficult discussions around controversial topics. Discussing controversies such as racial issues, a variety of issues around sexuality, violence, and so on, are often perceived as tricky subjects to navigate with students in general. Because of the difficulties attached to such discussions it can be tempting to take an easy way out by avoiding the uncomfortable subjects altogether. The problem with avoiding controversial or difficult subjects, however, is that doing so does not make them cease to exist. Even beyond the fact that denying something does not make it go away, in some cases failing to address an issue can worsen it.

An instance of narrowly avoided literary censoring:

A specific example of narrowly avoided literary censoring is examined in the article “Precocious Knowledge: Using Banned Books to Engage in a Youth Lens” by ninth grade teacher Alyssa D. Niccolini. In this text she examines an interesting encounter with this issue in her classroom,

“[…] Erica, one of my strongest and sweetest students, recently pulled out a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. My knee-jerk impulse was to want to make her put it away. Taken aback by my inclination to censor reading, I asked myself if the novel offended me more for its explicit sexual content, what I deemed its low literary status, the imagined reaction of a teacher or administrator seeing that now-notorious silver tie, or because of the preconceptions I had of Erica as a ‘sweet’ […] student” (22).

This teacher’s impulse is not an uncommon occurrence in the average secondary classroom; the uncomfortable nature of some books evokes a desire to suppress, censor, or completely ban their presence in the class. Had Niccolini asked her student to put the book away, she might have inadvertently embarrassed or upset her by discouraging her choice of reading material. Instead, she allowed Erica to read what she wanted and even later questioned her own mindset about this situation, “Rather than shy away from spaces in my curricula where I feel uneasy, I’ve started to think reflectively about why they generate discomfort. I have come to realize that much of my unease about particular books and topics comes from implicit notions I have about adolescence” (22). The more open-minded thought process that Niccolini adopted after evaluating and correcting her own “implicit notions” would be beneficial if applied to a vast array of literary works in several secondary English settings. Alyssa Niccolini recognized that the issue existed more heavily within her preconceived ideas, not so much within the literature itself or the student who was reading it. Luckily, she was able to learn and grow from this situation without any outside hinderances, but that is not always a possibility for every teacher. Under other circumstances the fact that Niccolini allowed her student to read such a controversial book in her classroom might have been met with backlash from administration or even the parent of another student.

Example of impulsive literary censoring:

Unfortunately, there are instances when teachers will advocate for literary works to be present and utilized in their classrooms and they are fought significantly by administration, parents, or both simultaneously. This is the exact of situation that Susan M. Kochman had to endure while teaching one of her high school classes. Unlike Niccolini, Kochman was not in a position where she could evaluate and solve the censorship issue on her own, rather she was faced with the harsh backlash of an adamant, closedminded school administration. In “What Happens When A High School Censors,” Kochman thoroughly recounts her multi-semester long conflict over a compilation of literary works that included a controversial Nikki Giovanni poem. According to Kochman, “Silently, I read the poem and saw the language to which he was referring – the f word and a slang term for male genitalia. […] ‘She’s trying to show the oppression and sexism some women feel…’ ‘And that’s the only way you can teach that?’ he cut me off. […] Next, the supervisor of secondary education chimed in that the book was vulgar and that we should return to our classes to take the students’ books” (58). Rather than looking beyond the blunt word choice of the poem like she was trying to lead them to do, the principal and other administrative members remained focused only on the “inappropriate” verbiage when they could have instead used this poem to communicate a deeper issue.

The problem:

By putting their energy and time into removing an entire text due to a couple of “inappropriate” words, the administration and parents responsible for these abrupt alterations ignored the fact that they were concurrently stripping the students of a host of important literature. Not only were they consciously choosing to omit the Giovanni poem (I will link the poem at the end of this post) that could have served as a prompt for crucial educational discussions on female oppression, they also severely complicated Kochman’s teaching plan which inhibits the productivity of the class overall. “Later, I had to use my preparation time listing all students who were absent and their book numbers because the principal wanted every book accounted for” (59). One impulsive change induced a domino effect that hindered student learning on a multitude of levels. While the principal was correct that analyzing the Nikki Giovanni poem is not the only way to teach about sexism and oppression, he failed to consider that although it is not the only way to teach those things, it is an incredibly effective way to teach them. “Woman Poem” by Nikki Giovanni does focus on the oppression and sexism surrounding women. The premise of the poem is the unfairness and unhappiness the speaker feels because of how she is oppressed and objectified. The mood of the poem, easily recognizable through the author’s word choice, is unhappiness. Two words that Kochman’s school administration and parents mentioned are such minute parts of a bigger picture painted by Giovanni that for educational purposes it is a shame to hinder the accessibility and analysis of the whole text.

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My blatant take on it:

High schoolers can easily access to just about any sort of information. It would be surprising if they did not encounter stories of or even have personal experiences with sexist and oppressive problems in one way or another. Banning this work of literature that Susan Kochman’s students were learning from and stripping them not only of this poem, but also the entire book of other works that surrounded it is not a way to prepare students for real world issues. Fabricating or omitting literary works that speak to true life phenomena is not beneficial to anyone, especially not to students who depend upon more experienced adults to guide them into learning the importance of staying informed, thinking for themselves, and learning not to avoid issues that are relevant and valuable. There may have been a student in Kochman’s class who personally struggled with some of the same feelings as the narrator in “Woman Poem” who could have benefitted from reading it. It also could have been used to break unhealthy preconceived ideas that some students may have held. A teacher’s job is to scaffold student learning, not to filter it to the extent of denying them access to relevant information. It is a disservice to high school students to withhold literature that could cause them to think about issues they have never before encountered, or better yet, it might prompt them to better understand issues that are already prevalent and relevant in their lives. Teenagers tend to be curious; their inquisitive nature is a wonderful quality, but it should be guided in a healthy manner rather than ignored, suppressed, or banned, forcing them to be left to their own devices. The following is a remarkable example of two secondary teachers who guided students, embraced banned books, and established a project intended to scaffold learning about controversial topics in a healthy and productive manner.

An argument for your consideration:

At the very least, the value of reading challenged or censored books in the secondary school system is severely underrated. Potential lessons and applications of literature is extremely versatile. The point of reading a book or a poem in secondary English class is not exclusively to learn the structural aspects or explain what happened in the prose. Possessing a working knowledge of poetry structures and sharpening reading comprehension skills are both incredibly important, but they are arguably not the primary takeaways students should acquire through studying literature in their classes. The key takeaways from literary courses should resemble the life changing, eye-opening, empathy and call to action sparked in students after reading The Hate U Give, or the questions they acquire about modern day reservations after reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, perhaps a boost of confidence in favor of standing up for women’s rights after they read “Woman Poem.” High school students’ education should not be so limited by the censorship of literature. Allegedly protecting them from uncomfortable subjects or controversial issues for a short term could likely hurt them in the long run.

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The information students acquire throughout their years in high school is a crucial piece in defining what they will do with life beyond high school, who they will be as adults and what they will value. As educators it is vital that no controversial or difficult subject is censored in the English classroom because there is no guarantee that the alternate source students decide to pursue in search of answers will provide them will helpful, safe, and accurate information. It is easier to ensure, however difficult it may be, that controversies discussed through a literary form with the guidance and expertise of a caring educator are likely to be received effectively and produce positive results.

Thank you for reading! I know this was a long one even though I condensed it from its paper format. I hope you enjoyed it and it made you think about some things perhaps you never considered before. Below is a link to the afore mentioned Nikki Giovanni poem. Please share, comment, and subscribe!

With Love,
Cass

The poem with an analysis: https://blackartsmovementumf.wordpress.com/nikki-giovannis-woman-poem/

Works Cited

Kochman, Susan M. “What Happens When a High School Censors.” The English Journal, vol. 86, no. 2, 1997, p. 58. EBSCOhost, doi:10.2307/819676.

Niccolini, Alyssa D. “Precocious Knowledge: Using Banned Books to Engage in a Youth Lens.” English Journal, vol. 104, no. 3, Jan. 2015, pp. 22–28. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,sso&db=ehh&AN=100728946&site=eds-live&scope=site.

2 thoughts on “Literature Sans Controversy: A Disservice to Students

  1. As a librarian, banning books is the most ridiculous thing to me. I did a presentation at a conference once about banned books and the various reasons they’re banned. The Diary of Anne Frank is a popular banned book. One of the many reasons it’s been banned is because it was deemed as too depressing. How absurd! Great article. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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