This past Sunday marked the beginning of Banned Books Week 2019. Banned Books Week is an annual event which celebrates our freedom to read. During the week, organizers and affiliates discuss and share instances of current and historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools. The website states, “Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community—librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types—in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.” Every year, Banned Books Week chooses a theme, this year’s theme being “Censorship leaves us in the dark. Keep the lights on.” When I hear this theme, I cannot help but inherently agree. In fact, I was even excited.
Sadly, my excitement was followed by disappointment as I began to realize that their campaign was focused on highlighting the censorship of books that had LGBTQIA+ and sexual content in it, rather than the kind of censorship I felt affected by in my educational experience. The censorship I was affected by was not whether books were submitted to the American Library Association, but rather what kinds of differences in opinion could be explored. This relates to why we celebrate our “freedom to read” in the first place. Celebrating the freedom to read is about exploring ideas and choosing what to believe in, not simply accepting what someone tells us to believe in. It’s about examining multiple sources to seek an answer, not just accepting the first source assigned to us.
As you can imagine, I wasn’t my professors’ favorite student at my small liberal arts school, not least because I had no problem reminding them that they failed to mention the positive arguments for the ideas they were trashing, discuss the other side of the story, or even the logic behind certain policies. How is a student expected to accurately write a paper advocating either for or against Karl Marx or Adam Smith if Marx is painted as a hero and Smith is painted as a demon? This kind of censorship might not necessarily be the same as people requesting to pull LGBTQIA+ books from the library, but it is an even worse kind, because it undermines the “freedom” we are celebrating by declaring certain issues or ideas off-limits to discuss. Tainting someone’s opinion by leaving out important elements of a story is like telling a half-truth, and should be recognized as a kind of censorship. Will this ever change? Can we bring critical thinking back into the classroom and give our students the opportunity to form their own ideas?
The case of James Flynn, author and professor at the University of Otago, New Zealand, provides a recent and discouraging example. Professor Flynn and I, while in different countries, both came to the same conclusion, that students are having their education censored, and he proceeded to write a book about it. His book, In Defense of Free Speech: The University as Censor, was never actually published despite his contract with Emerald Press. The decision was unfortunate, as the book would have provided a necessary and timely defense of free speech and its crucial role in society. Emerald’s 2019 September catalog described the book this way:
In Defense of Free Speech: The University as Censor
Author James R. Flynn, University of Otago, New Zealand
Synopsis: The good university is one that teaches students the intellectual skills they need to be intelligently critical—of their own beliefs and of the narratives presented by politicians and the media. Freedom to debate is essential to the development of critical thought, but on university campuses today free speech is restricted for fear of causing offence. In Defense of Free Speech surveys the underlying factors that circumscribe the ideas tolerated in our institutions of learning. James Flynn critically examines the way universities censor their teaching, how student activism tends to censor the opposing side and how academics censor themselves, and suggests that few, if any, universities can truly be seen as ‘good.’ In an age marred by fake news and social and political polarization, In Defense of Free Speech makes an impassioned argument for a return to critical thought.
There’s much more to the story, but it’s almost scary to see a book defending free speech denied publication.Free speech is more than the freedom to speak your mind, it’s also about allowing people to listen to alternative viewpoints and come to their own conclusions, hopefully through research and critical thinking. While much of today’s focus is on censorship by big tech, misinformation broadcasted on the news, and “banning” and “blocking” on social media, we sometimes risk forgetting about the censorship within the classroom. This goes beyond “banning books” and moves into the realm of “banning ideas.” I encourage everyone celebrating Banned Books Week, or even reflecting on it, to consider all of the books and essays that aren’t explicitly banned, but are strategically left out of the curriculum. Censorship comes in many forms, and as the theme of Banned Books Week is “Censorship leave us in the dark. Keep the lights on!” it is essential to shine a light on the importance of allowing students to explore a variety of ideas so they can learn how to think rather than what to think.