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The First Amendment of the United States expresses that, "Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." However, the list of banned books in public schools as well as in public libraries is quite extensive. Most proponents of literary censorship, both parents and organized public groups, act with what they perceive to be highest cause: protecting their families as well as their communities from evils and injustices. They see that they are preserving the values and ideals that the entire society should take in to account. The result, nevertheless, is always the denial of another’s right to read. And by denying the right to read, you deny the intellectual freedom that every child and young adult deserves.
There is an excellent essay written by Nat Hentoff entitled, "Why Teach Us to Read and Then Say We Can’t". In this essay, Hentoff explores several different circumstances where books were challenged in the settings of public schools. He also tries to find the answers to why anyone would want to prevent a child from reading such classics as Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Sallinger or Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Hentoff believes that the elimination of books such as these from school shelves is a form of thought control.
Hentoff states, "Attempts to control what children read, and thereby think, have been increasing across the country, according to annual accounts by the American Library Association and People for the American Way." He also points out that those figures that the ALA present are an understatement due to a great deal of underreporting that he discovered in his research. It is evident, supported by Hentoff’s findings, that there is a major problem in this country when it comes to the censorship of literature for children. Why do people see it as a solution to the problems of America’s education system?
Fortunately, the only encounter I personally had with this sort of ordeal was merely a near miss. In high school, when the curriculum called for the reading of Mark Twain’s classic, Huckleberry Finn, a debate had just started in a neighboring school district over whether it was suitable for reading in a public school. It was an issue my English teacher asked the class to keep in mind as we read the novel. By the end of the novel, I became quite aware of how ludicrous the idea of banning the book was. It was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that was pursuing the issue based on the fact that it contained the word ‘nigger’ a number of times. The NAACP felt that the liberal use of such a modern-day derogatory word would prove detrimental to the self-esteem students in minority groups. This was so hard for me to understand based on facts that were so obvious to me: Twain used such slurs both as a way to accurately portray the tone and setting of that time as well as to poke fun at the absurd ways they were used. Twain was in fact against the discriminatory treatment of African-Americans.
Each person that is involved in the debate over literary censorship believes that they are doing the right thing for the students. However, I believe that children and young adults alike, should be given the opportunity to determine for themselves what is offensive and what is acceptable. I have found that this type of learning is beneficial to a person’s morale and will make that child a stronger and more knowledgeable person in the end. However, if that child is sheltered from all that is seen as "offensive" around her, she will grow up naïve to the real world.
In closing, I will leave you with a quote by Alfred Whitney that I think is suitable, "Books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas. The source of better ideas is wisdom. The surest path to wisdom is liberal education."
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Freedom of expression, Nat Hentoff, Mark Twain, Censorship, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Intellectual freedom, Challenge, Freedom of speech, Nigger, First Amendment to the United States Constitution
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