Burbank Unified School District in California recently made headlines with its decision to ban the classic novels “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Of Mice and Men,” “The Cay, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” District leaders apparently responded to several complaints from parents who took issue with the purported racism of the books as well as incidents of white students taunting their nonwhite peers with racist language from their assigned reading.
Yet, in an effort to limit the controversy, removing these books from their approved reading lists only brought even more attention to the matter. Many people, including members of PEN America, expressed outrage at rejecting well-known classics because of a few parents who were offended and a few students acted stupidly.
These are good novels that take a sympathetic view of minorities with well-developed characters and realistic stories. And, a rarity in most classic novels, they also happen to be age-appropriate in their language and subject matter. For this reason, these books serve not just as good, but ideal resources for discussing sensitive issues.
While this is all true, it misses the real reason behind removing these titles. Sure, BUSD clearly hopes to quell the complaints of angry parents and avoid a negative image, but their long-term goal is part of a much larger trend in education: eliminating the very idea of classics and turning assigned reading into a form of indoctrination.
Usually, however, such a move as this would be excused as fostering a love of reading by engaging with relevant issues and challenging norms. A good example can be seen in the Read Woke Challenge, a nationwide campaign by school librarians encouraging adolescents to read the latest titles of social justice young adult fiction.
Verily, it is this long-term goal that makes the books in question problematic. Despite the handful of slurs one finds in it, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is not a racist book; quite the contrary, it is actually an “anti-racist” book that explicitly condemns racism while preaching tolerance and fairness. The problem with the novel is the time it was written and the person who wrote it: a white person growing up in a white world that writes from a “white perspective.” By today’s standards, where even a famous actress’s identity must exactly match the identity of the characters she plays, Harper Lee’s classic has become a racist perpetuation of oppressive narratives.
The other problem with a book like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I suspect, is the fact that it’s been, in a sense, overexposed. By now, generations of English teachers have taught it, year after year, often using the very same materials that were created decades earlier.
True, this indicates that the book has withstood the test of time and proved its merits, but this makes it a harder sell for today’s students. The book challenges them and thus doesn’t immediately appeal to their sensibilities. Instead of doing the difficult work of teaching such a book, most educators will pick another book that’s easier and more relatable. If labeling the book racist is a way to make this happen, so be it.
So what, if anything, replaces these supposedly racist and outdated classics? Usually, an underwhelming assortment of mediocre novels capitalizing on today’s identity politics. They usually feature protagonists from niche communities who struggle with realizing their identity and dealing with an unequivocally bigoted antagonist. The dialogue is “raw” and often features far more racial slurs and profanity than any banned classic. To add even more interest among today’s young readers, most of these books will pack in as many adult themes and explicit scenes as possible.
Ironically, for all their attempts at authenticity, these books are oftentimes completely artificial and utterly trite. The characters are flat; the language is unnatural; the settings and situations are exaggerated and unrealistic; the plots are predictable and boring; and the themes are preachy and annoying.
It’s obvious, even to semi-literate students in middle school and high school, that the writers of these books are pushing an agenda and pandering to a target audience. That’s why the only ones who really enjoy books like “The Hate U Give” are usually young progressive teachers wanting to “connect” with their minority students.
Fortunately, the obviousness of these texts tends to negate the strength of their propaganda. In most cases, students simply won’t read them. As with any assigned reading, they’ll watch the movie, read the summaries, or read the back cover of the book, hoping to glean the bare minimum required to barely scrape by in the coming testing.
After all, in most classes, the English teacher will hardly bother to hold them accountable for their reading. Most assessments will be done with discussions, written responses, and creative projects — all of which make it relatively easy to dodge the reading.
In truth, it’s this attitude about reading, in general, that should most concern parents and educators. If school districts updating and diversifying their assigned texts actually resulted in students reading more, it might be worth it. Instead, it most frequently does the exact opposite. Students start to associate literature and reading with insufferable political correctness and never actually acquire the necessary skills (such as logic, empathy, critical thinking) that come with reading assigned texts.
It’s worth asking, then, what exactly would help students become better readers who loved reading. In my experience, it would be assigning age-appropriate texts that are challenging yet relevant and engaging. In other words, it would mean bringing back today’s banned books that worked so well at helping young readers develop and mature.
Good books make good readers. And, as one might imagine, good readers like reading more than bad readers do. As “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua says in her brilliant article about Chinese parenting, “nothing is fun until you’re good at it.” That’s why the whole approach of removing classics and assigning easy fiction with leftist themes fails in cultivating any love of reading.
Rather, school districts should welcome the difficulty of the classics, seek to add more of them to their lists, and implement real demands on students (and teachers) in English classes. The politics and propaganda will have to wait until the students first learn to read and think for themselves.