The Trouble With Books (and knowledge in general)

Is the assault on books, censorship or simply a warning to those who might be harmed or offended? Is it to keep one vulnerable person safe or to limit a subject or author?

America is both a tolerant and intolerant country. There are tolerant and intolerant people. I am reminded of the Ray Bradbury book, Fahrenheit 451, about a society that uses a fire brigade to burn outlawed books.

Fahrenheit 451, based on the Ray Bradbury book.

Is it the book or the writing inside? Obviously it is the information. Look back in history and you will find many examples of thought, theory, history and storytelling that offended and carried punishment for possessing or discussing the offending information. Looking deeper, it is not just the writing or whispers of books, it is using the information for new thoughts, and potentially action. Books are powerful things.

I recently toured the American Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. I had been there before and maybe I’ve forgotten many of the points made in the exhibits because I was quite moved by what I experienced there. Slavery lasted about 250 years or 12 generations. Aside from the benefit of plantations, mills and factories that used slaves, the American economy grew to depend on slave labor. If racism just disappeared after the Civil War as some believe, why did America need a Civil Rights movement, executive orders, federal laws, Supreme Court decisions, the abolishment of Jim Crow laws, eradicating the KKK and breaking down societal barriers, and establishing the legal foundation for racial equality?

The Civil War should be a wealth of lessons that our country has grown from and learned. Should be.

An exhibit at the American Civil Right Museum.

I am confused by the debate over teaching children about issues of race in our country’s history. These things happened and future generations need to understand our past, both good and bad. Our history is who we are, like it or not. Agree with it or not.

We volley back and forth the notion of “getting our feelings hurt.” Whether it is books, history, religion, culture, civility or simple respect. We debate over whether prayer should be in school or on the football field, requiring the pledge of allegiance, standing during the national anthem, saying Merry Christmas, celebrating different cultural holidays, and on and on. We are a nation known more for our divides than our bridges. We don’t have to be alike to like and respect each other.

Now, the subject of books.

Banning or removing books from schools, libraries or availability is abhorrent to me. I’ll just go on the record with my belief. Every time I read or hear of it taking place in America I become concerned. We have freedom of thought in this country and freedom to read or listen to whatever interests us. I suppose we have always been on the lookout for something: heretics, communists, undocumented immigrants, homosexuals, purveyors of sexually explicit materials, ghosts, etc.

Most of the debate over books seem to be about schools. Parents should have an interest with what their children are taught in school, and what materials are available in libraries – to a degree. Books have covers and it takes a willing participant to open a cover. Same as someone opening a website or getting their hands on materials “inappropriate” to a child. Age appropriate access is a very important concern. Temptation and access reach far beyond the school or library. The job of a parent is harder than ever. Sometimes the greater need is discussion and explanation with a child. Thoughts and concepts can be difficult or troubling for children. The Diary of Anne Frank and To Kill a Mockingbird are still troubling for me to read.

History and social evolution are learning tools, and our past is often not simple or pretty. One does not need to tour a museum to understand our triumphs and failures.

Thinking back to my elementary and junior high school years, history was very sanitized. The evening news and films taught me more about world events than I learned in school. High school curriculum was much more inclusive of events, such as Watergate and the Holocaust. Even still, much was left out about civil rights, the treatment of Native Americans and persecution of those who did not think like or pray like white-bread America. I never heard of the Tulsa massacre or deadly assaults on other Black communities. Where is that in our text books? It’s not.

Sometimes we must find truth on our own, or when it is made available to us.

I remember watching Night and Fog, a documentary about the Holocaust in civics class as a high school senior and feeling sick afterwards. The film rattled me to the core, and it fueled a passion to educate myself on modern European history. Why did the Holocaust happen? Why did Germans give up their souls to an evil madman? Fifty years later and hundreds of hours of study later, I still do not understand. What bothers me is how little younger generations know and understand about that period. I see how we treat each other and blame entire races and ethnicities.

I probably should not have seen the television documentary, Harvest of Shame, without an adult to navigate learning about extreme poverty among migrant farm worker. Those images of malnourished and sick American children were very disturbing to me. The images still disturb me, they should disturb all of us. Poverty and food insecurity are still commonplace in America.

My earliest years were spent in small towns where racism was prevalent. To this day, I can recall many examples I observed. My first grade mind had a difficult time processing such things, but I knew it was not right.

When I saw To Kill a Mockingbird I could relate to much of subtext in the film, because I saw it. Culture is an interesting thing. Norms, shared beliefs and how customs are conveyed through behavior imprint young, impressionable minds and souls.

Parents rail at educators and school boards about subjecting children to harmful ideas. Schools provide information, but also help children to learn to think and process data to form thoughts, opinions and make decisions. These critical thinking muscles will guide them through life. Understanding and living in the world depends on honest and realistic knowledge, not just the pieces we agree with.

Should we feel shame over slavery, even though we are not part of it? I believe so. The evils underneath slavery did not end with the Civil War. That hate and racial superiority continued in culture, Jim Crow laws, economic opportunity, education and other societal practices. To deny these things existed into contemporary America is to reject reality. One thing I took away from the civil rights museum is a deeper understanding of how integrated the economics of slavery was in the American economy.

The conflict over relocating Civil War and Confederate symbols show how volatile our feelings are, and how deep-seated these symbols are ingrained in our culture. Race is a powerful issue. So is religion. Now it is sexual identity. America was never one race or one religion, and is more diverse with each day. America the “melting pot” wen from being a realization that most of us are not native to this country, to being a fear of other races and cultures, and who we are.

We are afraid of people who do not look like, think like, pray like, vote like, talk like or love like “us.”

So what does fear create? Oppression and hatred. Nothing positive. Books are not dangerous, but ideas, thoughts and some facts are. To some people. I would offer that some talk radio, television opinion shows, internet podcasts and religious fanatics do much more twisting of facts and indoctrinating than a few historical books or literary classics.

We live in the information age. In some ways, it is the age of indoctrination. Critical thinking was never more needed. A book can be a dangerous thing, but a closed mind is even worse.

One thought on “The Trouble With Books (and knowledge in general)

  1. You covered a lot of ground here. I’ll make just one point: there is a lot of hypocrisy in this country (America). The older I get the more I read, and the more I read the more I learn about America’s “dirty little secrets.” Just recently I saw a documentary on the firebombing of Tokyo during WWII. Most Americans know about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and some know about Dresden, but this bombing of (mainly) innocent civilians eclipsed all of them and is never talked about. Instead, we’re fed images of flag-raising at Iwo Jima and sailors kissing their sweethearts.


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