March 9, 2011

Literary Censorship in Schools

Filed under: Uncategorized — publicandprivatespace @ 10:34 am

By Ethan Hollingsworth

For the past several decades, a war has been raging in the libraries and classrooms of America’s high schools. The combatants are students, teachers, parents, and administrators, the weapons are words and ideas or the suppression thereof, and, all too often, the casualties are freedom and literature. For over two millennia, the academic arena has been a public space, both literally in that a public area was dedicated solely to academic pursuits, originally the Greek forum, and more recently high schools and universities, and figuratively in that all beliefs were welcomed and given equal exposure and consideration. However, recently it has shifted towards being a much less public space where, although almost all participants are still welcome, ideas can be restricted, legally by courts, but in practice by anyone who complains since schools would rather censor literature and curriculum than go through the hassle of a legal dispute.

This shift is not only bad for conceptions of public and private space, but also for the education of the students attending schools that censor literature. Great classics such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye, as well as many other modern classics have been kept out of schools and libraries because of profanity, racist statements, or despicable actions by the protagonist. These works have been banned in many schools over a long period of time for many different reasons. Huck Finn’s tale was first objected to because of words that were not considered proper, grammatically correct, or were generally seen as a bad influence on children, such as “scratch” and “sweat”.

After these words became acceptable, the book enjoyed relative peace for a few decades, until it was criticized by African American groups during the civil rights era. However, these early protests were not over language as the modern ones usually are but focused on the book’s portrayal of Jim. Civil rights activists felt that Jim was not a good representation of an African American man. He was seen as weak for not resisting slavery and somewhat foolish in his decision making abilities. Finally, in the late 1970s, the language of the book became a point of contention. The main debate has been over the frequent use of the word “nigger”, a word that is in the book a staggering 213 times. Prior to the past 35 years or so, the use of the word had simply been accepted. It was commonplace in Twain’s time and was not objectionable in the first half of the twentieth century. Eventually, the complaints will probably subside, and then some other aspect of the book will be called into question. It seems to be a never ending cycle.

In The Catcher in the Rye, aside from his continual use of profanity, teenage protagonist Holden Caulfield is often criticized for his actions. At one point he hires a prostitute, but he becomes uncomfortable and does not sleep with her, although he pays her for the lost time and her pimp takes more money from him. He also drinks and smokes in the novel, for which he is often criticized on the grounds that he is setting a bad example for adolescents. First of all, if adults don’t want their children drinking and smoking it’s up to them to set a good example. They can’t change what the rest of the world does. Second, as a teenager myself, I can guarantee you that my decision on whether or not to consume alcohol or tobacco is not going to be based on a character in a book. It is ridiculous to believe that Holden Caulfield’s fictional exploits have any appreciable power over America’s youth. People point out the fact that assassinations and assassination attempts have allegedly been motivated by The Catcher in the Rye, but, believe it or not, not every high school English student is a deranged sociopath who is going to be motivated to kill someone by a work of fiction. Anyone who would that easily kill someone who had no connection to the book is obviously a lunatic anyway.

Every obscene word that came off the tip of Salinger’s pen is said hundreds of times a day in any high school. Holden Caulfield’s actions, too, are matched by teenagers extremely frequently. Keeping students from reading The Catcher in the Rye is not sheltering them from anything. It is only robbing them of exposure to a classic novel, one that many of them will never read if it is not required of them. They gain nothing and lose only culture and understanding by being denied the chance to read such a book.

Literary censorship is a function of culture. That which is considered obscene is subjective and changes with time. People are always going to find some fault with certain books, but that should not be enough to keep them out of schools. If parents don’t want their own kids reading certain things, perhaps that should be negotiable, but they should not have any control over the curriculum for all other students. Turning schools into privately controlled spaces manipulated by a minority of parents who, for whatever reason, wish to “protect” students from great literature is dangerous both to education and to the integrity of public spaces nationwide.


  1. I think that this literary censorship is appalling and unnecessary. Some of the works that are censored out are the greatest works in literary history. Yes, due to the generation gap, there are elements of these novels which would be considered socially distasteful now a days however, these should be overlooked to see the bigger picture. The fact is that these works are just too important in the history of the English language to over look. Besides, it is not as if students wont be exposed to certain types of bad language or sexual references in the future anyways. Reading these books provide a safer, school environment in which to discuss them so it is in fact even more beneficial and educational. The word “Nigger” is going to exist whether or not students are not allowed to read it in the book so there is point in demeaning a work of literary genius.

    -Vishal Desai

    Comment by publicandprivatespace — March 9, 2011 @ 1:30 pm | Reply

  2. I agree with Vishal. I think that censorship is ridiculous. I do not think that books should be banned based on the idea that the youth are being negatively influenced by them. We were actually talking about this very same topic in my French Literature class, and we learned that the “N” word has been changed to “slave.” This does not do the time period justice! Yes, being a slave was a terrible thing, but being called a “nigger” was far worse and held such a heaver connotation. As Edmund Burke said, “Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it.” This is very relevant to this topic because if we forget about what happened and the impact it had on our country, we have a large chance of doing it again. This is called ignorance, which is ironically a huge fraction of censorship. I truly believe that we should leave literature in its original state because it was written a certain way for a reason. We have so much to learn from history, and the more we study it in its raw form, the better off we will be as citizens.

    -Haley Cator

    Comment by publicandprivatespace — March 9, 2011 @ 8:15 pm | Reply

  3. I have to agree with the ideas of this post. It is easier for parents to blame books for the poor decisions of their children than themselves. I also agree that it is okay for parents to control what their children, under the age of 18, are exposed to. However saying that “anyone who would that easily kill someone who had no connection to the book is obviously a lunatic anyway” is incredibly judgmental. Yes, there have been teenagers with mental health problems who have murdered, but there is always more to the story than their mental well-being. I think that school shootings are a symptom of something in our society that is much more serious than censorship of classic literature. Teachers should be educated on the symptoms of mental illness and trained to sensitively offer help to students exhibiting the symptoms. If anything, the students turned to literature for comfort and help that they could not find anywhere else. The teachers are not the only people to blame. Peers and parents probably saw symptoms of mental disease in these students and did not recognize them or know how to respond. Mental illnesses are just that, diseases and like all other medical conditions they need to be treated and the public needs to be educated.

    Comment by Elizabeth Freyman — March 10, 2011 @ 9:57 am | Reply

  4. Danny Macovei

    I think it is absolutely ridiculous that these books have been banned at any time. These books are respected pieces of literature because they depict aspects of life that other people can relate to. This means that these aspects exist in real life. If people are concerned about the safety of their children, they should encourage them to read these books. This way, they get exposed to these parts of life that are hard to deal with before they actually have to encounter them. They can be used as training wheels for the real world. If students were not exposed to the words and situations that is contained in these books, they would have no idea how to react to them when they made themselves evident in life. Not only that, but these books are social commentaries. They don’t encourage this behavior at all, but simply depict it in an artistic manner. There is a huge passage in Catcher in the Rye where Holden talks about how he hates the vulgarities he finds surrounding him on picnic tables and stairways. Mark Twain simply depicted the result of a man who was not given the opportunity to think for himself. Not only do these books depict important aspects of life, but they also show why the negative aspects are the way that they are.

    Comment by publicandprivatespace — March 10, 2011 @ 12:58 pm | Reply

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