This isn’t new: book banning and censoring in an era of political division

Last month, a Tennessee school board voted unanimously to remove Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust, from their eighth-grade curriculum, citing inappropriate language and imagery as their chief concerns. 

The “banning” of Maus sparked national outrage, with many people angry that the school board decided to “censor” a difficult part of history to swallow. While this controversy may seem relatively novel, the banning of books, especially in schools, has been an issue plaguing the United States for many years, and can be traced all the way back to the seventeenth century.

In the 1600s, book burning became a popular form of censorship. The first book to suffer this fate was the New English Canaan, which harshly criticized the practices of the Puritans, who subsequently burned it. This practice continued in a similar vein for several hundred years, with “blasphemous” writings like The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption and The Christian Commonwealth getting banned by angry and powerful groups. 

One of the first books to be banned in schools was  John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, which, despite being a bestseller upon release, sparked outrage for its occasional foul language and religious and sexual themes. Citizens of Kern County, California, were especially upset and went so far as to burn the book, harkening back to the Puritan era. They went on to ban the book from school and public libraries in the county. 

The banning of The Grapes of Wrath was not an isolated incident, with books like To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and Harry Potter being banned for various reasons, including discussions of race, foul language, sexual content, and in Potter’s case, “satanic wizardry.” Often nowadays, instead of banning the books from school libraries (which has been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court), school boards will simply remove the books from English curriculums, and by extent, the eyes of many students.

So… why? Why ban books from schools? Why prevent junior high and high schoolers from reading books like To Kill a Mockingbird or, most recently, Maus? Above all else, the answer mostly seems to lie in one word: fear.

Parents are scared. Parents are scared that their children will be exposed to ideas and images they deem inappropriate, whether it be the use of “the n-word” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the discussion of race in To Kill a Mockingbird, or the harsh depiction of the Holocaust in Maus. As our political climate grows more divided than ever, parents especially want to make sure their children aren’t being “corrupted” by an alternative agenda, and books that run counter to their ideologies have become their easiest targets. Instead of educating their children on the difficult topics in the books, they find it easier to censor it altogether. 

Is this the right approach? Some may believe so, but it seems contrary to the ideas of education and school, where students learn about many different viewpoints and harsh realities. Yes, Maus may be hard to read, it may have some harsh language, but if teenagers can’t handle a book with adult themes, how will they survive the real world? Instead, perhaps the solution is to let students read the books, and have an open conversation in the classroom and at home about the language or content within. 

Until then, we may just continue to act like the Puritans, banning the books we find uncomfortable to deal with, and withholding the past from our next generations.