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“Let us welcome controversial books and authors.”

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Censorship is a touchy issue.

We’ve talked about it before in terms of famous books that have been banned. But I don’t think we’ve ever really dived into it deeply.

Today, let’s give it a try. And, that said, let’s do our best not to get in a flame war in the comments!

I found the following quote the other day while doing some research for an article at work.

This comes from John F. Kennedy.

“If this nation is to be wise as well as strong, if we are to achieve our destiny, then we need more new ideas for more wise men reading more good books in more public libraries. These libraries should be open to all—except the censor. We must know all the facts and hear all the alternatives and listen to all the criticisms. Let us welcome controversial books and controversial authors. For the Bill of Rights is the guardian of our security as well as our liberty.”

I love that. I absolutely love that.

To me, censorship is big government at its worst. When censorship takes place at the government level, where do you draw the line? And exactly how do you draw the line?

It’s not so black and white. That’s why some less-than-intelligent school administrators and librarians have banned books like To Kill A Mockingbird because they contain racial slurs. They have no sense of context, meaning, and what the author intended with the book.

If censorship takes place, it should take place in the home. As a parent, I can pick and choose what I want my child to read. I can pick and choose when, and if, I think he’s ready for it. But I don’t need the government telling me when to do that.

I love the JFK quote because it promotes new, even outlandish ideas. It says, “Bring on the controversy!”

We’re not North Korea. We’re the United States. The United Kingdom. Australia. We’re [insert your civilized country here].

“Let us welcome controversial books and authors.”

Agree or disagree?

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34 Comments Post a comment
  1. heathermarsten04 #

    When I go to a bookstore I pick up the books, skim the pages, read the book description. Sometimes I buy the books, other times I put them down and don’t buy them. I self-censor. There are books I think are trashy and won’t read them. I do worry when kids get their hands on books that are not suitable for them. My kids have read some books I wish they didn’t, but I used that to my advantage. I read the same books and we discussed them. I asked questions and learned a lot about what they were thinking. It helped me to find the right answers for them. I did the same with some TV shows that they like, but I don’t. We would watch them together. Sometimes I pointed out unnecessary violence. Sometimes I changed my mind about a program. Sometimes I shared what I liked. I’ve even asked why they thought I might not like the show. If books are censored, it only creates a furtive desire to read them. we can’t control what people take in. Prohibition didn’t work. What we can do is use these things to help frame a message to those we love.

    February 20, 2013
  2. bba #

    I agree with you, I’d just add a word of caution about drawing correlations with “civilized” countries. Lots of European countries have much stricter laws concerning the airing of ideas than the US. In England, France, Germany, and a few others you can be prosecuted for racist language in public (or even displaying symbols like the swastika). It’d be interesting to hear from your readers outside the US how they conceive of what censorship means.

    February 20, 2013
  3. Yes! Absolutely agree. In addition to the points about big government, literature preserves our culture and continues it. By reading we learn about times and environments that we cannot live in, but are nonetheless important to our culture and to our history. If books like To Kill a Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn are banned what are we losing? We have to accept all the parts of our legacy, the good and the bad. Not to mention that it creates an aware population with many perspectives. Great post!

    February 20, 2013
  4. First it must be emphasized that the situation in the United States does not represent the rest of the world and it certainly doesn’t represent an ideal that the rest of the world should aspire to. But my real complaint is the de facto assumption that parents should be considered ideal or even adequate censors for their children. True, my father had the “my house, my rules” attitude, but my mother did not. When I was sent home in 3rd grade with a note indicating that my book report on Shakespeare’s MacBeth was unacceptable for the age group, she gave me The Tempest to read.

    When I had my own child I never withheld books (or movies) from her; if I felt a book might contain elements that were too adult or advanced, I would point this out to my daughter but after that, it was her decision whether or not to read the book. Most parents are at best self-centered and any censorship they might provide is more likely to reflect their own tastes than it is to assist in the development of their children. How many adults would you trust to makeup your reading list for you?

    Note also that this has nothing to do with their being “less-than-intelligent.” The parents, librarians, and administrators might be very intelligent but still have a different agenda. This doesn’t make them stupid … just dangerous.

    February 20, 2013
    • Certainly you have a line somewhere, right? I mean, you wouldn’t let your child look at a pornographic magazine at 5 years old? The point is that all parents are censors to some degree–of course they will have biases–but good parents will be able to recognize those and have discussions with the child intelligently about what is appropriate at that time in their life, as some other commenters have mentioned.

      February 20, 2013
      • Your example makes my point: five year old children are not interested in pornography … but their parents are. In almost all cases the child is the best judge and doesn’t need to be burdened with the foibles and neuroses of the parents. The reality is that parents are seldom able to recognize their own biases and as far as having intelligent discussions with their children, it begs the question that the parents are the intelligent side of the dialogue.

        February 20, 2013
        • Sorry, Mike. Just don’t agree with you. If I’m watching Platoon, my 2 year old isn’t going to be in the room. Interested or not, they pick up on stuff. I’d rather not have my two year old dropping the F bomb in preschool.

          February 20, 2013
          • When my innocence daughter was about 10 we were sitting on the couch as a movie came on that was rated R. The Kid asked why it was rated for adults. I admitted that it contained some nakedness and probably a few bad words. She just looked at me and asked, “You mean like fuck?” Do you suppose she had seen Platoon when she was 2 years old?

            February 20, 2013
          • Haha. Sounds like it!

            February 21, 2013
  5. I’m completely with you. My biggest concern is when we go back and rewrite books to make them ‘politically correct’. I mean that’s only one step away from rewriting nonfiction and history. Think about how scary 1984 was and then imagine it coming to life.

    February 20, 2013
    • Sissy #

      I know! Thank about the nursery rhymes BBC tried to change!
      “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men made Humpty Dumpty happy again.” Seriously?

      February 26, 2013
  6. As a librarian it can be extremely difficult to fight the power of influence from parents, administrators or the school board. Often times it is outside forces that actually create “banned books” not the librarians or teachers. Most librarians I know are actually extremely liberal and will buy and defend diverse collections. After all, It was librarians who created “Banned Book Week!”

    February 20, 2013
    • Very well said. Certainly not trying to paint a broad brush, although it might have seemed that way. The operating word is “some.” I love librarians!

      February 20, 2013
  7. As co-chair of our progressive k-8 school’s library committee and parent of a 3rd grade boy, I follow our school’s rules:

    Books are evaluated by our school’s librarian for teenage subject matter and listed as a “teen read” when appropriate. Teen subject matter usually includes dating, suicide, drugs, sex, graphic violence, etc. that are available to our middle school readers. Parents can give “teen reads” permission to their fourth and fifth graders. Otherwise, they need to wait until 6th grade before they can check them out. Some books in the “classic literature” section are considered “teen reads” because they’re complex and unlikely to be understood by younger kids. However, if a younger child wants to check out a “teen reads” classic, we don’t discourage them. Our school (and parents) spend a lot of time discussing issues with kids. By the time they’re ready for high school, they are informed, aware, and prepared.

    As far as censoring is concerned, the only things not allowed at school are toys that resemble any kind of gun. Not allowed at school for any purpose, including for Halloween costumes.

    February 20, 2013
    • All of that sounds reasonable. Sometimes the guidelines seem vague, though. For instance, a character in a novel might be racist (TKAM), but that doesn’t make said novel racist or even inappropriate to read. When books get “banned” for that reason, that’s when I get frustrated.

      February 20, 2013
      • Yes, I agree. I guess the motto should be “books to be discussed” rather than “books to ban.”

        February 20, 2013
  8. I do agree. Censorship is very dangerous, and can be justified only in extreme circumstances. The potential for injury must be demonstrated.

    February 20, 2013
  9. I agree with you. Books shouldn’t be censored only in cases of parents censoring what book their child reads. I thought the UK was fairly good with the non censorship of books but I guess of schools are doing this then maybe not!

    February 20, 2013
  10. Rachel #

    Hi Robert,

    Really like your blog and have been following it for awhile. I think people seem to focusing too much on censorship as being something only for children. Let’s not forget it wasn’t that long ago that books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lolita and basically anything by Henry Miller were banned and censored so that the general public couldn’t read them. When we talk about censorship, and censorship of literature in particular, there is a long history of this happening, but thankfully not so much now.

    February 20, 2013
  11. I appreciate a variety of thoughts on this particular topic. I am an English teacher and used to teach seventh graders. I faced persecution and censorship from parents, but never over a book they actually read. I was vilified instead for what they assumed was in the book or how it was perceived by the child. Some of the students in Texas have a religious bias that seems to say, “If something is fun to read, it must be bad.” The Hobbit is fantasy, and therefore they assume it promotes demonology. And I never got a parent to actually read the book they were afraid was going to corrupt their child. Censorship always happens out of fear and an urge to protect others from the things the censor himself doesn’t like. Do you know how much Harry Potter is feared in Texas? There are no easy answers. You want to teach the best ideas humanity has to offer, but you have to make allowances for people who are too fearful or too, uh… not smart to handle the book you want to teach it from.

    February 20, 2013
  12. Madeleine L’Engle, who won the Newbery medal for A Wrinkle in Time, wrote about this issue of censoring children’s books in her the book Walking on Water. It’s a collection of her rather unorthodox insights on writing, art and the Christian life. It’s a great read and I highly recommend it.

    Regarding children’s books, she wrote that “it is usually better to write within the child’s frame of reference, but there is no subject which should, in itself, be taboo. If it is essential for the development of the child protagonist, there is nothing which may not be included. It is how it is included which makes its presence permissible or impermissible.” I definitely agree with this sentiment, which I think applies to TKAM. Scout learns about the adult subjects of bigotry, racism and rape through the gentle guidance of Atticus. I think that’s a big part of the problem–parents today would rather avoid those subjects than deal with them in appropriate ways, like Atticus did with Scout. Of course I don’t think every book is appropriate for every child, but ‘controversial’ books can be a great educational tool if combined with great parenting.

    February 20, 2013
  13. “I would just say to you as students who are supposed to be learning, that as soon as that book is gone from the library, do not walk — run to your nearest public library or bookseller and find out what your elders don’t want you to know, because that’s what you need to know!” –Stephen King

    I always felt that line summed up my thoughts on the subject as well.

    February 20, 2013
  14. Reblogged this on irawati801.

    February 21, 2013
  15. It does drive me a little crazy when people can’t see past the blinders that “political correctness” has put on all of us, and ban things (whether in an official capacity or a parental one) in a simple knee-jerk reaction to racism or violence or sex or “bad words.” I was a remarkably sheltered child but I still knew the word “fuck” by the time I was 10, and though I never used it, I knew what it meant. That didn’t make me a bad kid or screw me up for life or anything. Kids pick up so much of what’s around them, and works like To Kill A Mockingbird or even trashy romance novels help them put a lot of it into perspective. Depriving them of that lens and pretending things like sex and racism don’t exist or don’t exist for them is, in my opinion, one of the most harmful things you can do.

    Of course, I’m not going to put on The Hangover and invite my five-year-old sister to watch with me. There are definitely boundaries to be considered. And while I wouldn’t be crazy about handing V. C. Andrews’ novels to my theoretical twelve-year-old daughter (which is how old I was when I first started reading them) and would probably make a token attempt at discouraging it, I would hope that, should she decide to read them, she would be open enough with me to discuss things she didn’t understand or liked or didn’t like about them, and why.

    February 21, 2013
    • My experience with children, especially young kids, is that materials they don’t understand or that don’t relate to their lives tend to be ignored. There is the joke about the little boy asking his father where he came from. After a long, detailed (and embarrassing) explanation of erections and sperm and pregnancy the boy admitted he was confused. “Billy next door said he was from Chicago and I just wondered where I came from.”

      Your younger sister would probably fall asleep anyway: she wouldn’t understand or relate to the movie (although the tiger might wake her up).

      We as parents must be very careful lest we turn our children into yet-another-generation of restrictions, prejudices, misinformation, and mediocrity.

      February 21, 2013
  16. Reblogged this on High School Edumacation and commented:
    Agree!

    February 21, 2013
  17. Banning books is never a good thing. Those books usually have very teachable moments if taught correctly. I’ve taught one controversial book this year, Of Mice and Men. The kids loved it, and they loved the 1992 adapted movie. During in class reading, we often had discussions about language and the violence. People need to give kids credit and understand that they are exposed to a lot of things via pop culture and all of it isn’t good…

    Books like To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Bridge to Terabithia, and any other controversial book all life lessons and themes that should be talked about in an educational environment. Sheltering kids from these things doesn’t make bad things go away…

    http://lablog101.wordpress.com/laliterature/ (my reading list for this year)

    February 22, 2013
  18. So true — I think parents should have some control over what their child reads/watches, if only because they’re the ones who’ll have to deal with a post-nightmare screaming kid if they’re allowed Harry Potter too early. But really, anything short of explicit instructions on how to create weapons, for example, doesn’t warrant government censorship.

    February 22, 2013
  19. Totally agree. Censorship is the enemy of honest, productive discussion and breeds secrecy and guilt. Society needs to tackle taboos by talking about them, not hiding them from public view!

    February 23, 2013
  20. I love banned books as well! It’s societies way of saying, don’t look here but really it tells the educated: LOOK HERE! lol. The Color Purple and The Help are two I remember that were semi-controversial.

    February 23, 2013
  21. Sissy #

    The book Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky was taken out of my school’s curriculum after one, and only one, parent complained about it. So naturally, I went straight to the library and read it. Not only was it pretty good, it also dealt with a lot of subject matter that is very relevant to high schoolers. In fact, it was filled with stuff that high schoolers really need to know about. Yet it was deemed too much for our tender minds.

    February 26, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Reading something different | Brittany Westerberg
  2. How Many C Words Is Too Many C Words? | 101 Books
  3. A Brilliant Experiment In Censorship | 101 Books

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