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Commentary: Political Actions Against Books Are Actions Against Teaching

Just back from a trip to Phoenix, I was struck by just how many people asked me my opinion regarding the recent move to ban books in Tucson and the outcry over ethnic studies throughout Arizona. As the interim president of the National Association for Ethnic Studies, you might expect that I am opposed to the actions taken by the Tucson Unified School District; I am—no surprise. But you are most likely wrong as to why.

First, I don’t live in Arizona, never mind Tucson—I haven’t been there in years, lovely town that it is. So, I can’t lay claim that I have a vested interest in “our community.” And, if truth be told, I could care less about what books Tucson bans or chooses to teach; it really doesn’t matter. No, really, it doesn’t matter.

What does matter (to me anyway and should for all Arizonians as well) is academic integrity and rigor—that is to say, honesty and thoroughness. These are aspects of teaching that every parent, student, teacher and policymaker in Tucson and throughout the United States should demand.

What the “banned-books” action highlights is a knee-jerk reaction to books that contain subject matter that someone—someone with clout that is—deems controversial, and objects to such books being taught. We have been down this road before, and, if we follow such logic, Darwin’s work would be banned in many places in the U.S. (sadly, the effort continues). It also would demand that any other author or work that offends or otherwise challenges the prevailing orthodoxy would be removed from the curriculum and that teachers would be prevented from discussing these authors and works and the “disturbing” issues and ideas they raise. This is the problem.

The movement in Tucson (and elsewhere around the world) to ban books that challenge, and in some ways make people uncomfortable, is a movement to silence, to squelch and to eradicate anything and everything that make us “feel threatened.” Since so many things are threatening to so many people, those who feel this way naturally want to prevent teaching that would undermine the world “they know”—and like, by the way.

But, here’s the thing; teaching, at its best, is about facilitating learning, which by definition involves “threatening“ the world as we know it—regardless of how one knows it! Genuine education is a process (not, by the way, a product that these days people of all political stripes are trying to sell). Learning involves movement, growth and transformation—in short, change.  And, as we know change can be upsetting.

Banning books does not and cannot stop such change; it does not stop genuine teaching.  Real teachers can teach without any books; so, as I said earlier, a banned book here or there really doesn’t matter. But, what does matter is that such public actions against “thinking otherwise” can have a chilling effect on “teaching otherwise.” Such political actions against books as such are action against teaching, and that’s the problem. Good and talented teachers may, for understandable reasons, retreat from teaching and give into, if not quite embrace, the pressure to distribute uncontroversial information—this kind of teaching does not of course translate into knowledge, no less wisdom—which may help explain the trend.

What makes the banning of any book problematic, for everyone, not just advocates of ethnic studies, of which I am one, is the deleterious impact it has on teaching. In the words of one of the banned authors, Paulo Freire, “as the practice of freedom,” teaching, that is, as the practice of thinking beyond what we have come to accept as a given. The sad truth is the fact that many people, too many, have banned books on their own for fear of being threatened. This is so because they are unwilling to consider and reconsider what they claim to know to be true about the world.

My concern about the list of banned books is not that any given teacher or student will be denied access to a particular book (upsetting as that is for me) as much as it is about the fact that so many in Tucson, in Arizona, in the United States, have willingly forfeited their access to books because these books and authors threaten their world(s). They have, on their own, “banned” books that would help them continue to learn, to grow, even if these books might challenge the world view they embrace.

I can’t help but think back to that time in history when Galileo’s book was banned because it challenged and disrupted the world “as people knew it.”

Ethnic Studies is one of many academic disciplines that challenge the world as we know it. As a result, some will get upset, some will even get offended, and some, thank goodness, will learn that “the world they know” is not “all that is known about the world.”

Dr. Ron Scapp is the Interim President of the National Association for Ethnic Studies and is a professor of Humanities and Teacher Education at College of Mount Saint Vincent, Bronx, New York.

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