Friday, August 21, 2009

Banning Books in Brampton

Apparently, in one Brampton high school, a complaint about a seminal American novel can rob an entire grade of the enjoyment of reading it.

Werner Patels reports:
A high school in Brampton, Ontario, recently made headlines when its principal decided to ban Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird, following a complaint from one parent about the use of racial epithets in the book.


Attacking a literary work, as this parent has done, is symbolic of the ignorance that has come to affect such large numbers of people in our midst. It is this ignorance that will prove either our biggest challenge or our downfall.
It pretty much goes without saying that this is a wretched decision, and Principal Kevin McGuire (who made the decision at the end of last year - no doubt hoping the issue would slip by unnoticed) should be horribly ashamed. It should be generally understood in a Western liberal society that words and thoughts cannot be summarily shunned from public life; that classic works of 20th Century literature will likely address some unpleasant topics; and that those who demand such censorship should be instructed on the meaning of liberty. At the very least, we should not be wilting in the face of such illiberal demands.

Interestingly, I read through Werner's post expecting to see him lay out the moral case for free speech, or the typical practical case for free speech (that unpleasant speech needs to be addressed head on, rather than shoved out of sight). Neither was there. Instead, Werner wrote a thorough post on how this sort of thing makes us, collectively, dumber.

For all the standard ills associated with banishing literature from the public spheres, he laments that those students will not have the opportunity to enrich their minds reading Harper Lee's classic. Sure, they can still read the book on their own time, but if we acknowledge that most people will only do so much reading - and school-assigned readings will dominate this time for students - then we have severely reduced the odds that students will read this book. This is the reason that curriculum choices are so important.

Further, as Werner notes, we lose some of our shared knowledge and experience. A joy of classics (whether it be novels, plays, short stories, movies or what have you) is that it is something we can share. It can be easy to get separated and isolated from the rest of the world these days, but these common cultural (or pop cultural) reference points can help to keep us bound together (the whole, where-were-you-when? type question). If a new generation does not read To Kill a Mockingbird, how will they understand who Boo Radley is?

Thankfully, we can be comforted by the fact that these censors will, no doubt, be haunted eternally by the ghost of Gregory Peck.

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