Banned Books Week features 4-person panel on censorship

As part of Banned Books Week, a panel that included two librarians, a professor of English, and a student in English with an emphasis on education discussed various issues related to censorship at both the K-12 and collegiate levels. One of the many topics brought up at the event held Tuesday in Little Theater was the power of the Texas Board of Education in choosing and censoring public school textbooks. During his presentation on the topic, Joe Sutliff Sanders, professor of English who teaches courses on children’s literature, illustrated ways in which the institution has a disproportionate amount of power in censoring the content taught in classrooms.

“The board isn’t even composed of experts,” Sanders said. “They don’t listen to experts, and they manipulate standards to their own perspectives.”

Sanders said the board can set standards for textbook publishers and tell them what they want to see included in the textbooks even when they’re still in early draft form. Because Texas is such a large state and thus purchases the most textbooks by far, many publishers cater to their requests, and other states often follow Texas’ example when buying textbooks. This is one form, Sanders argued, that censorship in the U.S. currently takes.

Lucas Loughmiller, director of library and instructional media services at USD 383, said he agreed. “When I was working within this major metropolitan area, I looked at some of those textbooks, and they were borderline ridiculous.”

However, due to an increase in e-readers and electronic books, the Texas Board of Education’s control of the textbook industry might be coming to an end, Sanders said. With more e-books, publishers can easily and cheaply change the material of textbooks to tailor to certain states.

Another topic discussed at the panel was censorship at the collegiate level. Daniel Ireton, assistant professor at Hale Library, said that while this isn’t a major issue for college students, who are often encouraged to consult primary texts and be “free-thinkers,” the issue of censorship is an important one for college-age students to consider as it affects public schools and libraries.

“This [college] is where young minds are shaped, and you learn more about the world,” Ireton said. “But if we say it’s OK to ban a book because we don’t like, it won’t change the dialogue of public schools and libraries facing this issue. The better we can get that across to students, the better you can change that dialogue.”

Rachel Smith, senior in English, noted that censorship is a much bigger problem internationally than it is in the U.S. Smith said she experienced censorship firsthand when she traveled abroad to China, a place in which certain topics are prohibited by social custom and by law both in writing and in speech.

“The issue of censorship we try to keep out of our colleges, but Banned Books Week is good for raising awareness for it, not just nationally but internationally, as well,” Smith said.

Panelists also discussed reasons why books are often challenged or banned. Ireton said the most common complaint is that a book may be inappropriate for a certain age range. Most books are banned because parents of students complain to the school.

“When the books are banned and you ask the people if they’ve read it, they say ‘No,’” Ireton said. “They say they’ve only heard about it and heard that it was bad.”

Amidst the many children’s books that have been banned are the books in the “Harry Potter” series because, according to various religious groups, they support occult and non-Christian values. Other famous children’s books like “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and the “Captain Underpants” series were banned because the content was considered inappropriate for certain age groups.

Sanders encouraged those who consider this topic to take a deeper look at why certain books are challenged. He used “The Bridge to Terabithia” by Katherine Paterson as an example.

“All the things they said were patently absurd,” Sanders said of the objections raised by those wishing to ban it. “Apparently, there are anti-Christian values and it supports Satanism, even though Katherine Paterson is the daughter of missionaries and is a Sunday school teacher. What I really want to know is what they’re really upset about. That can lead to interesting discussions.”

Sanders posed that perhaps the real reason parents might object to “The Bridge to Terabithia” or other such books was because the book includes scenes of tragedy. Understanding why this might make some parents uncomfortable, he noted, may be a good way to undertake a meaningful dialogue about censorship.

The panel encouraged teachers not to shy away from banned books but to use them as teaching moments to help children grow intellectually.

“It’s easier to remove it than use it as a teachable moment,” Loughmiller said. “Today, parents aren’t as well versed as to what their children are reading. Rather than censoring something, we need to get parents more involved in what their children are reading. It surprises me what passes as socially acceptable and what isn’t.”

On the other side of censorship, Kaitlyn Schmidt, sophomore in elementary education, asked the panel what a student should do if they are uncomfortable reading an assigned book. Schmidt said she had to read a book for class that she was uncomfortable with, but the instructor was adamant that Schmidt stick with the book or fail the class.

“There needs to be more communication between the professor and the student,” Loughmiller said.

Sanders disagreed and said that students should read the assigned text. He read one of the requirements for his class from his syllabus: “You are required to read all the texts, but you are not required to like them.”

Sanders said he sometimes assigns specific texts to upset people and to get them talking.

“I want students to stand up for what they believe,” Sanders said. “I like books that push us to our limits.”

Overall, Schmidt said she liked the different opinions on censorship and that everyone seemed to have a different take on the issue. Since Schmidt wants to be a Christian school teacher, she found some of their advice encouraging.

“When books are more controversial in the classroom, I’ll be sure to read them myself,” Schmidt said. “I think there should be alternative assignments for children because it might be offensive or against their beliefs.”