I was listening to a new podcast I found, Jon Ronson’s Things Fell Apart in which he was discussing the efforts of an Evangelical woman in the south to have certain books at the local school banned for content she deemed objectionable. He mentioned in an offhand way that he had just learned that a high school principal in Scottsdale, AZ was fired over one of his own books. That’s how I found out that my daughter’s high school principal was fired over a book that my daughter had opted to read for her summer reading list for an AP English class her junior year. Since my daughter’s now at college, and this happened after she graduated (and during the pandemic), we were unaware of what had happened, and our first thought was, “Holy crap, did [vocal Mormon family who does stuff like this] just get the principal fired??”
The podcast was the first time I heard about it, but it wasn’t the first time someone told me about it. It’s just the first time I paid attention. The first version I heard of what happened was given from the side of the outraged parents, that the book was completely inappropriate for high school students and contained profanity, bestiality (!), and a Nazi sex party. My daughter told me, “I loved that book! I actually just re-read it last week because I liked it so much. It’s right here by my bed.” She just couldn’t believe that this book was so controversial that her principal got fired over it. I pointed out that not all kids were raised watching Law & Order: Special Victims Unit like she was. Clearly this was a book I needed to read for myself, so I downloaded it and read it during my recent trip overseas.
Contrary to the version some parents at my daughter’s alma mater were pedalling, this is not a love story about a woman and a horse, although it does contain a reference to people who claimed to practice bestiality  and there was one use of the “c” word (which, trust me, is not uncommon in Britain although Americans really hate that word). The book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is about cancel culture and goes through several case studies of individuals who were cancelled, usually on social media. Those who were cancelled experienced intense suffering that felt like a sort of death. The book also explored how to deal with this happening, and whether the key was to just be OK with what we’ve done, to be radically honest about who we are and what our views are . Rather than a didactic book about the evils of social shaming (or the evils people do that get them cancelled), the book is more like interesting dinner conversation about cases in which people did suffer social shame for statements they made or actions they took. The author fairly successfully avoids condemning people in the process, no mean feat given the subject matter.
Was the book appropriate for high school students? That’s definitely a matter of opinion. It wasn’t written as a high school text or with high schoolers in mind. Some parents might be reasonably upset if it was mandatory reading, but in this case, it was on an optional summer reading list only for AP students. Given that, the real issue was that school policy wasn’t followed. The board normally approves all reading, and if the book is considered controversial, there should be a parental approval form for the student to choose the book. This process was not followed, and my best guess is that the principal told the outraged parents to pound sand, backing the teacher (who wasn’t fired) rather than the policy. The board wasn’t having it, and to reassert their authority, they fired the principal. If so, I suppose that’s in their right.
But is the point to make sure parents are informed and can choose to avoid content, or is it to greatly limit the number of approved choices to only those without controversy? If the former, that’s more or less how the policy worked when I was in school, but more and more it seems the point is to preference the voices of religious activists and fully ban books from the reading list, even books that were not deemed controversial when I was a student and have been staples of the curriculum for decades.
A friend I grew up with recently sent me a link to an article from our own high school in rural Pennsylvania in which a couple of Evangelicals who participated in the January 6th insurrection have gotten elected to the school board and began banning books right and left including all Toni Morrison books which deal with themes of slavery, Shakespeare’s classic Romeo & Juliet, and To Kill a Mockingbird. That’s some crazy pants book banning right there, and I’m not sure just how far off the nut you have to be to find them controversial.
Jon Ronson’s book was certainly more relevant and timely than many of these books, written about a fairly modern phenomenon, albeit with an eye to the historical precedents of cancellation. Did the teacher deliberately avoid going through the process to avoid board scrutiny or parental control? According to my daughter, this teacher said and did things in class that were sometimes problematic on race, such as using the N word to “take the power out of it” which sure doesn’t sound like the right move for a white woman to decide in a predominantly white school. Obviously, she didn’t have infallible judgment, although again, I must reiterate, she’s not the one who got fired. The other book that was an option included date rape which my daughter found depressing, heavy material; none of the parents objected to the book with date rape in it. 
When I pointed out to my daughter that I heard plenty of profanity and sexual content just by attending the public school system, which didn’t come with a parental warning, she countered quite rightly that every student is carrying the entire internet on their phones to school every day; they all have access to basically everything, regardless of the approved reading list.
These types of debates also seem to highlight another problem with the banning: that white, conservative, religious parents’ wishes are being privileged over BIPOC and other parents’ wishes. If we care about parents having a say in the books our children read, we have to realize that not all of us are trying to keep our kids in a bubble where exposure to critical thinking and ideas is a threat. A lot of parents feel, as I do, that education is for grappling with difficult concepts, not white-washing and censoring. I have no objection to parents having to sign off on controversial books, but some parents want to police what everyone else reads, not just their own kids.
- Are these types of reading censorship happening in your area?
- How would you deal with controversial books in the schools?
- Are there books you think should be disallowed from school libraries? What are they?
 They did not. It was some parent we didn’t know at all. Apparently the Mormons aren’t the only ones who hate free speech!
 On household cats no less!
 The aforementioned “Nazi sex party” is an example of this, although as the person cancelled hastened to clarify, they were German military uniforms, not Nazi. The person caught up in cancel culture refused to be ashamed of his consensual sexual behavior, and brazened it out.
 The Church would have revised that, inaccurately (one truth and a lie style), to “non-consensual immorality.”
Books should never be banned. It is hard enough to get young people to read at all. Banning books only creates young people who are ignorant and lazy.
That is the real issue here. Those who want to ban books are those who want public education reduced to the level of the lowest common denominator. They seek to ban books that are hard to read and require thought. They don’t want any students to get better grades than others because the lower performing students might feel bad.
Reducing expectations in the schools has reduced learning exponentially. Vast hordes of young people have abandoned reading and spend their time smoking in 7-Eleven parking lots with Post Malone blaring in the background.
And that is the real irony here. By banning books, these people have ensured that young people won’t have the knowledge they need to make intelligent, moral choices. This leads to young people to behave like drunken, crazed rabbits, which is the exact opposite of what the book banners claim they want to prevent.
This is such a complicated issue. Most of us want parents to have a say in what their kids are taught. But most of us worry about fanatic parents with whom we disagree. I don’t want right wing religious nuts banning books. But I don’t want 7-year olds (1st grade) discussing sexuality. Complicated.
I don’t offer solutions except to say that parents should be involved. My kids (who attended private school) are all adults but my wife and I were pretty involved with their school (a K-12 private school). And if your kids go to public school, you should know who the school board members are and what they stand for.
So this was a high school.. I recall my own A level German texts, which definitely come under the heavy and depressing category, but led interesting discussions about thorny moral issues.. Frank Wedekind’s play Frühlings Erwachen (didn’t pass the British censors’ strictures for performance until the late 1960s, so there could be parents having conniptions right there), Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Der Besuch der alten Dame, Max Frisch‘s Andorra, and Heinrich Böll‘s Der verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum. Parents could have found stuff they didn’t like in any of those.
Would the same parents ban “miracle of forgiveness” for it’s sexual content? It’s a problematic book definitely, though not necessarily for the reasons they might identify… and mind boggling to my young self (armed with a dictionary) when I took it off the bookshelf at home for some church related reading material..
If you can find it in the Bible, then it is okay to talk about in a literature class. Right?
Josh H: I assume when you say “7 year olds discussing sexuality” you may be referring to the so-called ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill in Florida that specifically mentions grades 1-3 not giving “instruction” on LGBTQ issues. Aside from that bill being written so vaguely as to be impossible to know what teachers can and can’t do, the two most controversial aspects to the bill are 1) there was a lot of debate over the original word being “discussion” rather than “instruction, meaning you can’t mention that a child has gay parents or siblings, for example, and 2) parents who don’t like what a teacher has said can sue, and that’s the mechanism for enforcement, which is actually unpopular among nearly all voters, including conservatives who might be clutching their pearls about kids knowing gay people exist and don’t have to be social pariahs. Gay teachers aren’t clear if they will be sued or fired for having a photo of their spouse on their desk, for example, or if a student is asked to draw their family, will they have to ignore two same sex parents or refuse to allow them to tell the class they have two moms or two dads. Any of these things could (with the current wording) be deemed grounds for a fanatical litigious parent to sue or an extremist principle or school board to fire them.
One of the podcasts I listen to was discussing a problem I’ve also identified among church leadership: the most strident voices carry the day. The ones who are trying to be reasonable just get shouted down. This is true on both the right and the left, unfortunately. The rest of us are just left to sift through the carnage.
This is a difficult problem, maybe. As this issue roils many school districts across the country, here are thoughts that roll around in my head when the controversy lands on the pages of newspapers.
*We seem to have lost faith in the power of students gaining critical thinking skills. Worse, it seems to me those outraged by books fundamentally lack critical thinking skills. They are projecting their own fears of not being able to understand the very readings they find to be dangerous (if they have even bothered to read the books they seek to ban). I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that everyone is so fragile. Certainly, this is core to being Mormon. Hide the history, shield your youth from the world. Don’t talk about troubling topics. Why? I guess we don’t believe in our own strength. Maybe it’s because we don’t go through the hard work to become mentally strong (or develop moral decision making skills). Obstinance seems to abound. Critical thinking skills seems to be in short supply. Endow adolescents with critical thinking skills and you have to worry less about books, or the entire world being on their iPhones as they walk through the walls of the same schools obsessed with controlling reading content.
*In my household, we have found the opposite approach offers the most protection to our kids, and by protection we mean understanding the world and all of its viewpoints and competing ideas through the lens of critical thinking. We have worked to education and expose our children to the world through reading. Understanding age appropriateness is the biggest challenge. We certainly weren’t giving our children Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian to read in 8th grade. But I don’t get the sense those who want to ban books are doing it based on theories of human development and age appropriateness. They seem to want to police ideas, period. This is what we should all be worried about and push back on with vigor.
*Last thought. Back to this same tendency in which our church culture seems to lean. Did any of you who went to BYU ever go into “the restricted book cage” on the fourth floor of the HBLL library? A professor of mine with whom I worked closely and I found out about it and decided to go on a curiosity trip. We went to the desk and were told unless we could demonstrate a valid research purpose they would not let us in to the cage. So we went back to our offices and did. We return and after getting hassled and frowned at, were finally given access. It’s where they stash all of the books on sex ed and photography of the nude form. It was pretty anti-climactic to be honest and we left rather discouraged that a world class library felt they had to protect students (and faculty!) from books on human sexual development and photography of the nude form. There was no erotic materials in the cage that we could find. We thought about writing a humor piece for submission to Sunstone, but didn’t feel like the topic warranted our names landing on Boyd K. Packer’s double secret probationary list kept at church headquarters. It was one of my many eye rolls while a student at BYU.
Angela C: The actual text of the Florida law is one that even a majority of Democrats in Florida support (according to the polling I’ve seen). The media and social media mob hijacked this bill to give us all the impression that nobody could mention the word “gay” in the classroom. Very disingenuous.
I think a separate discussion would be interesting in which we debate the age in which we let kids discuss sexuality at school. My initial impression (after having 4 kids) is that waiting until 3rd or 4th grade seems reasonable.
Interesting post. I just taught acts 3 and 4 of Twelfth Night and my students and I discussed the treatment of Malvolio and its relationship to the anti-poetic sentiments and rhetoric of 16th-century English Protestants. This is relevant to the post because one of the things we discussed was an issue BigSky raises; that of lacking critical thinking skills. Most attempts to ban anything (books, Elvis, Beatles records) have much less to do with morality and appropriateness and much more to do with fear, which in part comes from lacking the objectivity that critical thinking skills can provide. I absolutely agree that determining the age-appropriateness of books is a fraught and complicated process, one that would make me want to err on the side of caution rather than otherwise. On the other hand, it’s also clear that when taught thoughtfully and sensitively in an appropriate setting by a good teacher, such texts as those mentioned above can have a wonderfully transformative effect on the thinking and worldview of young people. And that is the goal of education; to enlarge our capacity to think, to increase our awareness of others’ lives and to develop a more catholic (note the small “c”), empathetic worldview.
Since I live in the South, these conversations are happening all around me. I do think that there are some books that should be disallowed from schools, but I’m not at all confident that rabidly zealous evangelicals or Mormons are the people that should make that determination. On the one hand, I agree with josh h about parents being involved and there being some limits, but I also agree that shielding children from age-appropriate discussions of real-world issues is ultimately doing them a disservice. This is a hard world, and most people live really difficult lives, though there is also plenty of beauty and joy out there, too. Those are truths that literature can really help young people understand, accept and learn about.
Josh H: I’ve heard (I think it was on 538 podcast?) that the polling varied quite a bit depending on how the question was being asked. Some polling tried to explain the bill in layman’s terms, and other polling read the text of it. Regardless, there seems to be a lot of confusion over what the bill will *really* do when it’s in effect. Another issue is that there never was any sexual instruction being given to children this age in schools, so what exactly is the bill supposed to prevent? Sexuality is not in the curriculum at this age range.
Angela C: You make a very good point and i have the answer to your question. DeSantis is running for president so he is picking cultural fights to build his resume. He is solving problems that don’t exist to build his reputation with the GOP base (although in all fairness I’m not excited about Disney’s response either).
Many districts have long ago gone to lists of approved books created with public input. Teachers do not have discretion to purchase titles of their choice with tax dollars. Collaboration between high school English departments and the community they serve alleviates the problems.
Old Man: For textbooks, yes, the community purchases them. Not so for optional reading list books. We paid for the book our daughter chose directly.
As you mention in the OP, with computers kids have access to literally anything. While there are certainly books that may not be the right reading level for an elementary school library … in general I think that the best thing we can do as parents and educators is teach kids critical reading and thinking skills. Trying to shield them is a fool’s errand most of the time … and then in cases where it actually works, the kiddos are warped IMO. See eg Educated.
And yes there are efforts like this in Utah. Apparently you can’t be gay or black in a book here.
Back in the day my junior and senior year high school reading lists had had books that had quite a bit of sex and otherwise potentially objectionable material. It was more difficult at the time to find out what mature material was in a book; it was a total crap shoot. Today, if one is concerned about such things, one can find out online what risqué material is in a given book. I chose to read both 1984, which has a bit of sex, and A Brave New World, which is mostly about a society controlled by drugs, sex, and eugenics, of sorts. But all the sex was hetero and human, so less likely to anger the right wing.
Look, by the time a person is a senior in high school there really isn’t much point in controlling their reading material. No one is putting Penthouse on the senior reading list; if the reading has literary or journalistic merit it can be included. Parents or students who want to keep there reading eyes squeaky clean can always curate their own reading, including coordinating with the teacher to read something not on the list, provided it has the appropriate literary or journalistic value. I have never known a teacher to turn down such a request.
Speaking of parental control, the Utah House had a bill that would have required teachers to post all their lesson plans and materials online at least 30 days prior to using it. Teachers were up in arms, concerned that it would prevent them from being flexible and spending extra time on topics when students are struggling. I had heard that a number of teachers were planning to quit or move out of state if it passed. I think the bill stalled and the session is over, so I’m not sure if that means it failed to pass or if it has another chance in the next session.
@rockwell I think it has another shot next session. Seriously insane. The Utah legislature drives me absolutely mad. So extremist.
When I was in high school, a banned book would only make me more curious as to its content and cause me to especially seek out the title if only for the high of breaking the rule. If the book is not found in a school class or library, it can often still be found at the public library and definitely online.
It is impossible to shield a motivated kid from anything. Better to teach them how to handle “the world” rather than pretend it doesn’t exist.
My first year at Michigan State in the 1960’s, “the Grapes of Wrath” was required reading. Some parents objected. I can’t remember why. But there is a throw-away joke about beastiality.
There is evidence that the Utah legislature is going to get even more “conservative.” So it seems probable that issues like book banning, teaching CRT, obsessing over transgenders, etc. are going to stay on their agenda.
As has been mentioned, with the Internet, banning books doesn’t work. Besides, all the hubbub just peaks kids’ curiosity. They can get the book from the library or from Amazon. Banning is a losing proposition.
I was told that for a while “Rough Stone Rolling” wasn’t sold at the BYU library.
How about Mark Twain’s works that include satirical racial comments that some find offensive? Satire always offends someone.
Kids often just won’t engage seriously in a book or even discussion of things they are developmentally ready for. I think this is true of sexuality. My kids all asked where babies came from and we were matter of fact and they said ok, promptly forgot and moved on. A 2nd grader isn’t even thinking about sexuality in the way an adult does. things like the Florida law are unnecessary and likely to cause issues by having children of gay or trans parents sense that there is something dirty or wrong about their family. Plus the lawsuit mechanism is ripe for abuse.
Likewise is remember my son who was an early reader reading the Harry Potter series very very young. I worried about some of the content but it didn’t register in the same way. The violence in the last book was translated to the cartoon images he had seen not what adults imagined. I do think movies can be different because they dictate the visual as well.
Of course the issue is that parents aren’t ready to discuss things. A middle school kid becomes curious about sexuality regardless of the books in their library. Obviously pornography, extreme violence (sometimes including graphic news), etc may be more than they can handle psychologically but that isn’t what we are talking about Older kids in high school encounter these things in real life and if they don’t they will soon. I would rather they engage in a good piece of literature and hopefully discussion at home then with whatever they hear in the hallway of school. I guess I’m not worried about it. I told my kids if they ever felt something was too much for them and they needed me to talk to a teacher about an assigned book I would. The few tougher books they read they skipped the difficult sections they later told me.
“Pedalling”?! I weep for the American educational system.
(Fortunately, I was a spelling major at Bible college.)
The idea driving this latest wave of book banning is the mistaken belief that if kids don’t read about a particularly topic, they won’t ever learn about or embrace it. So silly. Kids today —- like those in the past — often are attracted to ideas and concepts that their parents hate. My parents loved Elvis when their parents hated him. In high school I knew students who loved the graphic violence in The Godfather or the sexual tease contained in a long list of romance novels, all without their parents being tuned in. Kids find pornography and hide it from their parents everyday. Books are so far down the list in terms of “threats”. This fixations shows the foolishness of the parents, not the scariness of our schools.
In my family growing up, R-rated movies were taboo, video games were outlawed and TV shows were closely scrutinized for content (MTV was blocked completely), but there were no restrictions on books. So as a teenager when I discovered that there were all manner of books containing sex, violence, dark humor, profanity, and other objectionable content that appealed to me, hiding in plain sight in the school library, I felt like I had stumbled onto some big secret. I found the back door to mature, “sophisticated” thought-provoking entertainment! It was exciting to feel like I was pulling one over on my parents and Church leaders who often warned about the dangerous influence of the media and the internet (this was the late 90s when the internet was quite new and a lot of the older folks were scared of it). I really got into Kurt Vonnegut in high school, and as long as my parents saw me reading quietly, they assumed I was a dedicated scholar with no desire for “worldly” entertainment. If they only knew.
Regardless, reading about sex and violence and other things taught me to enjoy reading, but did not instill within me a desire to act immorally. If anything, uncensored literature opened up windows to aspects of humanity that I was otherwise being sheltered from, and gave me a chance to think critically about what information was being presented to me. This is why banning books is foolish.
My parents had prudish Victorian sensibilities about these things, almost hypocritically so. They were quite indignant about comprehensive sex education at school, but at the same time they did not object to me or my siblings receiving the curriculum because the alternative was for them to teach it to us at home (which was far beyond their comfort zone). A lot of this pearl-clutching comes from the insidious lie that public schools are bastions of moral decay and that parents are responsible for standing up to them. The same thing is playing out today in school districts everywhere, where unequipped scared parents have bought into the conservative fear-mongering that public educators are the enemy, when in reality, educators want what’s best for kids just as parents do.
And just where did my parents learn to view public educators as enemies? At church, of course! As long as the LDS Church and other similar conservative churches lean on narratives of the world becoming more and more evil, culture wars and moral panics like this will continue crop up every generation.