The (Short) Road from Book Banning to Book Burning

On the heels of my last post (Behind the Attack on Critical Race Theory) comes the news that efforts by Republican-led states to ban books from K-12 classrooms have now spread to colleges and university campuses. Consider this: Last year PEN America, an organization which champions free expression, reported that of the 54 bills introduced between January and September 2021 in 24 state legislatures across the United States, only three states (Idaho, Iowa, and Oklahoma) extended gag orders to the higher education system. Yet a recent legislative review by the same organization has found that the focus of these measures was rapidly shifting. “Forty-six percent of all educational gag orders filed so far this year implicate higher education directly,” PEN America reported.  “As of January 24, there were 38 higher education-focused bills under consideration in 20 states.” The PEN America report provides many specific details of the pending legislation, and you should read it.  But here are some notable horrors:

  • Oklahoma’s HB 2988, under which professors at public colleges are prevented from teaching “that America has more culpability, in general, than other nations for the institution of slavery; that one race is the unique oppressor in the institution of slavery; that another race is the unique victim in the institution of slavery; that America, in general, had slavery more extensively and for a later period of time than other nations.”

  • Under laws in introduced in Missouri (HB 1484), Oklahoma (SB 1141), Pennsylvania (HB 1532), South Carolina (H. 4605), and Wisconsin (SB 409), “professors could not discuss affirmative action or reparations for the descendants of enslaved people, even to disagree with them, or assign readings such as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ ‘The Case for Reparations,’ even when paired with competing perspectives.”

  • Mississippi’s HB 437 would prohibit faculty from teaching or assigning materials that raise the idea that “the State of Mississippi is fundamentally, institutionally, or systemically racist.” All seven of Mississippi’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) would be muzzled by this gag order since the measure would apply to private as well as public colleges in the state. Violations could lead to the loss of state funding.

One candidate for the open Senate seat in my own state of Ohio, J.D. Vance of Hillbilly Elegy fame, recently insisted on the campaign trail that “the professors are the enemy.” Yet, when reading Alaska’s HB 228, Iowa’s HF 222, or Missouri’s HB 1634, it is quite clear that history itself, and Black history in particular, is the enemy. Alaska is one of many states which would ban the use of the Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project as a classroom assignment. Iowa would go further by also prohibiting “any similarly developed curriculum.” Not to be outdone, Missouri would bar seven different curricula, including the 1619 Project, the Learning for Justice curriculum of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and any curriculum suggested by “educational equity consultants.”

These attacks on academic freedom and educational integrity, of course, aren’t the first. It wasn’t that long ago when faculty were fired for refusing to sign loyalty oaths, allegedly communist organizations and speakers were forced off campus, and administrators expelled professors who were declared “unfit” to teach because of their ideological orientation. Yet what is striking about the current flurry of state legislative measures is their uniform attempt to force students to consume a whitewashed (in all senses of the word) nationalistic history while prohibiting access to the complexities and distressing realities of (the actual) U.S. history. The standard histories that dominated K-12 and college classrooms up through at least the 1950s consistently ignored, distorted, or demeaned the voices and contributions of women and minoritized populations. But today’s crop of right-wing legislators is seeking to erase the brilliant and challenging scholarship that has emerged since then, prohibiting curricula based on those deeply researched accounts from being taught on pain of fines, loss of funding, or dismissal.

Certainly, there is a cause for concern, particularly for those of us in academia, regarding attempts by progressive students or faculty to prohibit or silence certain speakers or to censure colleagues who express contentious views on social media. But to headline, as was the case in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, that “academic freedom is on the ropes” because of attacks from “both the right and the left,” is to fundamentally ignore who holds power and how it is being used. It is one (certainly problematic) matter to dis-invite a speaker from a campus lecture, and quite another to prohibit statewide the teaching of fact-based history because those in power don’t find it to their advantage. One would hope that we can address the former by encouraging a discussion of how higher education structurally must strive towards democracy, viewpoint diversity and inclusion. But if the latter proceeds unchecked, it will inexorably lead us toward authoritarianism.

From Banning to Burning

Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, pastor burns books, January 2022

Like many of you, no doubt, I was horrified to watch the video of a Tennessee pastor who, in late January 2022, organized a book burning with his congregation to destroy such “occultic materials” as the Harry Potter novels. Right-wing clergy (among others) have been known to engage periodically in such practices, and the Potter novels have often been a target. But J.K. Rowling’s writings aren’t alone. In 2017, traditionalist Catholic seminarians burned Thomas Merton’s works; in 2011 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Arizona “cleaned up” items designated for a new public library by burning them; in 2010 a spate of Qur’ran burnings occurred across the United States.

It is easy to dismiss these activities as the antics of addled theocrats and hardly representative of the current political moment. But the practice of burning materials with which one disagrees has not been unusual in the United States, even given its visual and material resonance with Nazi book burnings in Germany and Austria in the 1930s. I was reminded of this when I recently visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. One of the entry panels to a history of rock features the attempts by conservative clergy, radio stations, and politicians to stamp out rock and roll during the “moral panics” of the 1950s and 1960s. Listeners were invited to bring their records to toss onto community bonfires in an attempt to rid the culture of “satanic” music that was thought to encourage sexual activity, race mixing, and liberal thought in general.

In August 1966, the Birmingham Alabama radio station WAQY planned a bonfire and invited teens to burn their Beatles records. (UPI photograph, fair use)

Hold on, you are likely thinking, there is a world of difference between banning books and burning them. Unfortunately, I would suggest the line between the two is vanishingly thin and speaks only to the methods used to keep unwelcome ideas from students and the public at large. As the right’s crusade shifts from limiting access to what are deemed controversial matters in K-12 classrooms to public and private colleges and universities, and to public libraries across the country, these gag orders can no longer be sold as an attempt by parents to protect impressionable first-graders from “age-inappropriate” content.

They are a bid to dictate what should (and should not) be read, studied, discussed, and learned by anyone, at any age. Since September 2021, for example, the American Library Association said there have been at least 230 challenges to books. Removing books from library shelves and using legislative power to prohibiting discussions from classrooms ultimately has the same intent and effect as book burning: banning ideas that are considered illegitimate or threatening. It is crazy-making to consider that many of those who ferociously oppose mask mandates and cheer on the truckers blocking Canadian border crossings in the name of freedom are the same ones insisting that they be the ones to decide what can and can’t be read in schools, what should be swept from library shelves.

If, for most of you, the two images above conjure up Nazi bonfires, for me the resonance is personal. Early on the morning of September 23, 1973, I was shaken from sleep by the sound of loudspeakers eight floors below, commanding everyone to stay in their apartments. I was living in the “Torres de San Borja,” a cluster of high-rise housing blocks near downtown Santiago, Chile. Twelve days earlier, the military had overthrown President Salvador Allende’s democratic government. Now, as I looked out on hundreds of heavily armed soldiers surrounding the building, I could already hear others pounding on doors from the floors above. Throughout the day and into early evening, the soldiers occupied the building, arresting those who, only days before, worked in government offices, while also gathering up suspect books, records, pamphlets and posters, all destined for the street below where they would be set alight.

Soldiers surround the San Borja apartment block, September 23, 1973

Months later, the images taken that day, which you can view below, appeared in the international press, and I could see – literally — my own books added to the flames. Prior to Pinochet’s coup of 1973, just to remind you, Chile was praised as one of the two most democratic countries in South America. It prided itself on a history that featured democratic elections and fewer presidential assassinations than had taken place in the United States. (Uruguay was the second democracy, and it, too, succumbed to an authoritarian coup that same year). The lessons one learns when living through the demise of a democracy tend to shape how one views the present. That is certainly true for me.

Burning books, San Borja (Sep. 23, 1973) Photograph: David Burnett
Burning books, San Borja (Sept. 23, 1973)
Burning books, San Borja (Sept. 23, 1973)

Pushing Back

It has been heartening to see, over the past weeks and months, that the educational gag orders and book bans have been resisted with creativity and determination. Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel, Maus, is back on the best-seller list thanks to a Tennessee school board’s decision to ban it from middle school classes. Davidson College professor Scott Denham offered to provide a free online course for 8th to 12th grade students in the county who are interested in studying the book and the Holocaust. In Kutztown, PA, high school students formed a Banned Book Club where they meet bi-weekly to read and discuss literature that conservatives have banished from school libraries. Last year, when Pennsylvania’s Central York school board proscribed a long list of books, almost entirely titles by, or about, people of color, a student protest succeeded in overturning the ban. Twelve-year-olds Kharia Pitts and Jaiden Johnson, seventh graders at Meridian World School in Round Rock, Texas, co-founded the Round Rock Black Students Book Club, one of a number of reading groups created by Black students, which holds student-led discussions about books pulled from their school’s shelves. At P.S. 125 in Harlem, teachers spent three weeks guiding their students through The 1619 Project: Born on the Water, a companion to the adult book for younger readers. Students wrote poems, drew self-portraits and relished a visit from Renée Watson and Nikole Hannah-Jones, the book’s co-authors.

These actions, and others of a similar nature, are vital if we are to confront the right’s concerted attempt to legislate what our students, and we, are allowed to read or discuss. In her always informative blog, Cult of Pedagogy, Jennifer Gonzalez, lists a number of ways to monitor state and local attempts to limit students’ access to educational materials or the public’s access to library resources. Organizations including the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, the American Historical Association’s Teaching History with Integrity project, the NCTE’s (National Council of Teachers of English) Intellectual Freedom Center, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) which has paired up with NCTE to offer a handbook for responding to book challenges, the American Association of University Professors,  PEN America, and others have resources, contacts, curriculum guides, and suggestions for how to resist the aspiring thought police. What can we do? To expand on Gonzalez’s list: work to undo harmful policies; take proactive measures; be aware of local school board elections; know what policies are already in place; be aware of education gag bills that are pending at your state house; support teachers who resist censorship; share what you know about these policies with others; know what laws apply and use them to your advantage; study the opposition; push back; and, do what you always do the best: educate.

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