Ad Hoc Book Bans, a Shortcut to Civic Illiteracy

PEN America’s recent report Banned in the USA surveys the avalanche of school book bans that happened between July 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022: In nine months, 1,568 individual bans. Targeting 1,145 unique book titles. 874 authors, 198 illustrators, and 9 translators. In 86 districts, 26 states. Affecting a total of 2,899 schools. Over 2 million students.

Of these 1,568 challenges, 282 were submitted in February 2022 by a couple whose child attends an elementary school in McKinney Independent School District (ISD) in Texas. For each of the books they were challenging, the parents recorded the same exact complaint: “Contains 1 or more of the following: Marxism, incest, sexual explicit material—in written form and/or visual pictures, pornography, CRT, immoral activities, rebelliousness against parents, and the material contradicts the ISD’s student handbook.” Copy and paste. Two hundred and eighty-two times. Hit send.

The parents reported that they found all the books they challenged in the “Krause List.” The mother claimed that they read them all. She described it as being an “unpleasant task” yet they were willing to do it to protect their child, as well as the 23,000 kids in McKinney ISD.

Republican State Rep. Matt Krause, of Fort Worth released the list of 850 books which he asked schools to “investigate” on October 25, 2021. As Mike Hixenbaugh, reporter for MSNBC, noted on Twitter, assuming the parents started reading the same day that list came out, finishing 282 books would have required them to read 2.5 books per day for 113 consecutive days before they could submit their requests.

Author of one of the challenged books, Bill Konigsberg published an open letter to the parents addressing each of their stated concerns vis-a-vis his novel The Bridge: Marxist philosophy, none. Incest, none. Sexual explicit behavior, none. Pornography, none. CRT, none. Immoral activities, none.  Rebelliousness against parents, possibly, as one of the main characters skips school for a day, yet that seems like quite a minor transgression for young adult fiction.

Konigsberg concludes, “My concern is that you didn’t actually read The Bridge and said that you did. I say this because your list of 282 books includes the exact same concerns for each book. That seems lazy, at best. At worst, it is deceitful, which, I imagine, goes against the ISD handbook. I certainly hope you’re not doing that! It would be hypocritical to behave in ways that go against the values we try to instill in our children.”

In reality, what Konigsberg’s novel contains is two severely depressed teens who meet atop the George Washington Bridge in New York City while each is considering suicide. This is a book about mental health. Yet perhaps that too poses a threat to the conservative agenda. Afterall, why talk about depression and suicide when the pursuit of happiness is Americans’ unalienable right?

“I am concerned about the young people in the McKinney Independent School District, because in my experience, kids are the same everywhere,” writes Konigsberg. “There are depressed kids everywhere. There are isolated, at-risk kids everywhere. There are LGBTQ kids everywhere. Getting rid of books from the library won’t change that; it will just make life that much harder and more isolated for those children.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics 2019 report observed the ever-rising mental health risks among youth: anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide. The report further revealed that nowadays the cause for “impairments and limitations” adolescents experience are more often due to mental health disorders rather than physical conditions. Covid only worsened these ongoing struggles. Just in December 2021, U.S. Surgeon General published a public advisory, warning about the “devastating” mental health crisis among teens. “The pandemic era’s unfathomable number of deaths, pervasive sense of fear, economic instability, and forced physical distancing from loved ones, friends, and communities have exacerbated the unprecedented stresses young people already faced,” he wrote.

It is ironic that amid this dire mental health crisis, social and emotional learning (SEL) in schools is also coming under fire. How did an educational framework that highlights the importance of empathy, resilience, relationship building, and collaboration end up becoming a political target?

After the Florida Department of Education rejected dozens of math textbooks due to their  SEL content, in an interview with New York Times, right-wing activists Chris Rufo, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, explained that though social-emotional learning sounds “positive and uncontroversial” in theory, “in practice, SEL serves as a delivery mechanism for radical pedagogies such as critical race theory and gender deconstructionism.” “The intention of SEL,” he persisted, “is to soften children at an emotional level, reinterpret their normative behavior as an expression of ‘repression,’ ‘whiteness,’ or ‘internalized racism,’ and then rewire their behavior according to the dictates of left-wing ideology.”

Conservative news site Accuracy in Media’s president Adam Guillette exclaimed, “We’ve seen that simply banning critical race theory will not get it out of your schools,” adding, “Teachers will call it social and emotional learning, or mental health, or whatever they need to call it so that you don’t think your child is being indoctrinated.”

The solution: Ban as many books as possible. Ban history. Ban literature. Ban social studies. Ban math even. Ban mental health, too, of course. It is easy. All one needs to do is to fill out a request with a claim such as, “Contains 1 or more of the following: Sexuality, CRT, SEL…” Copy and paste. Hit send.

PEN America reports that of the 1,586 bans listed in its Index of School Book Bans, the vast majority (98%) have not followed the best practice guidelines outlined by the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) and the American Library Association (ALA). PEN America underscores that these “ad hoc bans” point to “a very disturbing trend,” where removing books at the sign of any complaint by defying existing policies and disregarding guidelines which are in place to protect students’ First Amendment rights, is becoming  “almost reflexive.”

Speaking to the book bans and systematic attacks on public education, cultural critic Henry Giroux writes, “Rather than push at the frontiers of the imagination, education in the broadest sense, is being constructed to promote ignorance and organized irresponsibility.”  What is emerging in this vacuum is a new kind of illiteracy, which Giroux describes as being “about more than not knowing how to read the book or the word; it is about not knowing how to read the world.”

Being able to read the world requires critical thinking, imagination, and memory. It entails self-reflection, as well as social awareness. It calls for dialogue. Because civic literacy goes beyond being able to name branches of the American government. It goes beyond the knowledge of the founding documents. It goes beyond patriotic slogans. Civic literacy is about engagement, agency, and social responsibility, rather than a sense of entitlement to individualistic interpretations of freedom and self-government. It is about embracing questions and complexity, rather than endorsing ignorance.

Each book is a brick that paves the long road to civic literacy. Each banned book is an absence that renders the road uneven. And when hundreds and hundreds, thousands of books are banned at once reflexively, indefensibly, the road becomes in danger of simply collapsing into civic illiteracy.

The fear of books that some politicians and parents harbor must not upend millions of students’ freedom to read.

Ipek S. Burnett is a depth psychologist and Turkish novelist living in San Francisco. She’s the author of A Jungian Inquiry into the American Psyche: The Violence of Innocence (Routledge, 2019). For more information visit: www.ipekburnett.com.    

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