Rape. Incest. Suicide. When parents react in shock to explicit passages found in many contemporary young adult novels and high school lit assignments, they are told that education must acknowledge such issues as part of the real world.
Lately, university students, too, have sparked headlines by protesting classroom material that they find difficult to cope with and asking for the ability to opt-out, such as Yale University students protesting having to read Shakespeare and Chaucer in British literature classes because they are “white male authors.” These students are told that the real world doesn’t include trigger warnings. Both groups are accused of being, at best, would-be ostriches who hide from necessary discomfort.
Yet oddly enough, the progressive Americans who bristle and cry “censorship” when parents protest high school reading assignments tend to be the same population that supports trigger warnings in college classrooms. Conversely, conservatives who want college students to stop claiming that references to sex, colonialism, or racism are “triggering” also tend to argue that schools are less safe when they require high schoolers to read sexual or violent material.
It is as if both progressives and conservatives are willing, in one sphere, to acknowledge that books can challenge a student’s intellectual, emotional, or moral well-being, yet in another act as if the other side is making a foolish fuss. Have both groups fallen haphazardly into self-contradicting positions?
Trigger Warnings Versus Content Warnings
It is certainly clear that both sides are quick to fear that the other is making a bid to control access to ideas. Witness the loud objections not just to attempts to remove books from circulation, but also to attempts to provide information about those materials. It is no secret that conservative voices have been prominent in arguing that a cultural expectation of trigger warnings fails to actually help victims of traumatic experiences and could lead to stifling free speech.
Progressives also raise concerns about efforts to provide the equivalent of trigger warnings for young adult literature. Kristin Pekoll of the Association of American Libraries argues that the quest for such ratings is motivated by the natural human desire to escape discomfort, but that “Even with the cleanest rating, a person can still be offended. Because people are unique and books are complex. No rating system is going to convey everything in a book.” Her words sound surprisingly akin to those of professors who think that flagging every trigger is a futile exercise.
Even more strikingly, Joan Bertin, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, warns that sites which provide content-warnings “invite censorship efforts by parents who cite them to object to books assigned in schools.” A similar argument was used against a recent piece of Republican-sponsored Virginia legislation that, had it not been vetoed by the governor, would have required public school teachers to notify parents about sexually explicit material.
Why is it that even when one side claims that all they ask for is an open conversation about whether certain passages could be damaging to certain students, or even for nothing but a simple heads-up, the other side sees a slippery slope into the deep dark pit where books are burned or left in the moldy corners? The difficulty of conducting a discussion about the merits of specific educational reading materials without being called something unpleasant (“Snowflake!” “Censor!” “Fascist!”) is revealing. The truth is that both sides distrust each other because they recognize that the conversation is being conducted, to some degree, in subterfuge and code words.
This Is a Proxy War for Political Disagreements
For instance, when parents balk at a summer reading list for entering high school freshmen that includes a title about a girl learning to embrace life as a lesbian, they cannot openly claim that homosexual acts are perverted or that they vehemently disagree with the message taught by an author who chooses to write about the evils of therapy designed to turn gay kids into straight ones. All they can productively claim is that the F-word-laden tale is not age-appropriate for 14-year-olds.
Many of these parents surely want more than they so carefully say (many would no doubt be happy if they could turn back the cultural clock to an era when such books were not published by mainstream presses), and their opponents know it. Perhaps that is part of the reason why these parents are often called hypocrites. Bertin, cited above, remarks, “The term ‘age-appropriate’ is widely used as a proxy for the values and beliefs I want to impart to my kids, and how much I want to control them.”
Yet when progressives protest that parental interference in literature classes are hypocritical machinations, their argument veils a twist within their own logic. Sites like Banned Books Week, which celebrates titles that have been banned or “challenged” by parents, communicate the message that declaring a book inappropriate for a school setting is inherently wrong. Yet surely few progressives would champion a young adult book that appeared to be racist, anti-abortion, or homophobic.
In Teen Ink, one teen writer says parents are “selfish” for trying to keep a book like “Heather has Two Mommies” away from children because “These issues are not monstrous and the censorship of them not only shows prejudice but lack of respect.” However, “That being said, there are often books that contain graphic and often highly inappropriate material; I do consent that these books should be censored at the discretion of the parent.” That is, parents should not be allowed to object to books that are good, but it is fine for them to object to books that are bad.
Progressives cannot openly say that they believe conservative parents to have less right to influence public school curriculum simply because they believe conservatives to be wrong; so, like the parents who use the term “age-inappropriate” to mean “damagingly untrue,” they use words like “controlling access to ideas” to mean “bigot-headed.” Both sides know their opponents come from a radically different perspective. Therefore, neither trusts the other to wisely choose good books or even to be fully open about their aims and motivations.
What We All Agree On: Books Matter
The lack of trust is just as significant in arguments over course material in universities. When students at Columbia University infamously argued that Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” a part of their school’s core curriculum, “Like so many texts in the Western canon . . . contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom,” they provoked outrage and trigger-warning jokes. These students did not ask that Western classics be banned. However, if their implied advice to adjust the core curriculum to include more books like those of Toni Morrison’s is put into practice, some current content will presumably need to be dropped in order to make room. Just as progressives see censorship when conservatives want certain books struck off the required reading list, conservatives see the equivalent when progressives edge-out older books.
The great American book battles are of course more complicated than can be fully expressed in generalities. Some conservative college students also embrace the trigger-warning culture by claiming the right not to read assignments they find offensive. Some progressives, too, seek to ban books. There are many additional cultural factors involved, including the rise of consumerism as an approach to education. Another major question of the struggle is the degree of authority parents ought to have over their children’s upbringing, whether the responsibility to educate children rests primarily with the home or the state, and at what age a young person ought to begin enjoying the freedoms of adulthood. Yet complex as all this is, one lesson is clear.
Books matter. They can help, they can traumatize, and they can harm. The passion with which progressives and conservatives battle it out—sometimes even in ways that seem contradictory—over the way books ought to be selected, assigned, and taught is a powerful testimony to the power of stories to shape the way we see and approach the world.
In general, conservatives seem to be faring poorly in the contest to influence our students. Why? Conservatives would do well to consider the words of Sherman Alexie, author of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” who argues eloquently against those who would shelter young people from “darkness-filled” books like his. He says, “There are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books-especially the dark and dangerous ones-will save them.”
He claims that children who live a life free of darkness are privileged, and that seeking to protect them is to protect privilege at the expense of those in pain. Furthermore, in his own childhood, he “read books about monsters and monstrous things, often written with monstrous language, because they taught me how to battle the real monsters in my life.” Although I doubt Alexie is a fan of G. K. Chesterton, the novelist’s words bring to mind the Chesterton remarks that are most famously summarized, “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.”
Get Your Own Dragon Fire
Conservatives fail to communicate their beliefs when they seek (or appear to seek) to shuffle along the path of boring blandness while keeping the biggest and most blatantly fire-breathing dragons out of public schools. Of course they must assert their right to be parents and to protect their children. Of course they must wade into the fray and point out the dangers of harmful literature assignments. Yet attempting to hold the line with terms like “age-appropriate” is inadequate.
Rather than using code-speak and seeming contradictions, they would be better off fighting fire with their own dragon fire. Their only hope is to offer vibrant, well-crafted stories that rival the “realness” of the stories to which they object. They need books that present what is good, true, and beautiful. They need stories about dragons whose fire is just as hot and deadly, yet who can be defeated by what is good. They must offer hope that comes from a different place than the hyper-individualized, relativistic message found in the dark books of today.
Some of these books will be old. The classics have much to offer, as does the abundance of less famous books from past eras, but they must be taught well. Those students from Columbia had a valid point when they complained of a professor who would teach about a poetical description of rape without ever addressing questions of morality and meaning.
Other books must be new. Both conservatives and progressives are accused of trying to hide from real life; and perhaps it is no wonder that they would do so, if life is really as dark and unjust as many contemporary books make it appear. A great opportunity exists for authors who can coax our students—whether high schoolers or college kids—to engage with the real world and see that truth, goodness, and beauty are just as real as the darkness through which they shine.