This isn’t the post I’d intended to write. I actually had something else planned. But a Facebook post from Jeffrey Siger (Yes, the author of the Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis novels) challenged me (in a very good way) to speak out. Thank you for the inspiration, Jeffrey. There’s been a lot of heated discussion – and more – lately about which books should be permitted in US public schools. In several school districts (and a few states), books are being pulled from library shelves, and teachers are being pressured to go through their classroom libraries and remove all books that might be considered unacceptable. What counts as ‘unacceptable’ varies depending on the wording a given school district/state uses, but the underlying principle is the same: book banning. This sets a very dangerous precedent for several reasons.
I’ve been in the world of education for over thirty years. In that time, I’ve seen a number of education ideas gain popularity and then lose it. But there are also several consistent research findings over decades of work. One of them is the vital importance of reading. Many studies (I won’t reference them here, but I’d be glad to provide you with the references if you wish) show that regular, varied, fluent reading is associated with higher academic performance, cognitive flexibility, and successful critical thinking. Regular reading increases breadth of knowledge, too. In short, it’s a crucial learning skill. So, how do we support regular reading? Research also shows (again, I can provide references if you wish) that student choice in reading is closely associated with student willingness to read. What’s more, when students choose what to read, at least some of the time, they are more likely to select more challenging reading, which in turn supports their reading development and their thinking skills. Banning books limits student thinking.
Another consistent finding from the research is that critical thinking skills are important to successful learning. Students benefit greatly from learning to assess ideas, determine author’s point of view, and come to their own conclusions based on what they learn. All of those skills have cross-curricular benefits, too. So, students who learn critical thinking skills through reading can use those skills as they form scientific hypotheses or make sense of historical events. We learn to think critically in part by reading things with which we may not agree – things that may even make us uncomfortable. If students do not have access to a wide variety of narratives and voices, it’s more difficult for them to develop those critical thinking skills. Banning books silences voices.
Students who read regularly and fluently, and who have solid critical thinking skills, are well equipped for adult citizenship. They’re skilled at problem-solving, they have wide perspectives, and they have large, deep funds of knowledge to bring to bear on their lives. They are also open to new ideas, which makes them more comfortable working with others who have a variety of points of view. Those strengths, and the confidence students gain from developing them, will be useful no matter what life paths students choose. When students do not have access to different voices and diverse experiences, they don’t have as much opportunity to develop those strengths. Banning books limits student access to those skills.
Research also shows that our classrooms and society are becoming increasingly diverse. Students come from many cultural, linguistic, socioeconomic, and ethnic groups. Their home lives are increasingly diverse, too. Why does this matter? Studies show convincingly (at least to me) that when students feel a connection to what they are learning and reading, they’re more likely to engage in what they’re doing. This means they learn more, remember longer, and are more likely to motivate themselves. One important way to help students link their own lives to the content is to share a variety of perspectives and voices and experiences. If students see themselves in what they read and learn, it has meaning for them. By contrast, if students do not feel connected to what they’re learning, they are more likely to disengage from school. They may come to believe it’s ‘not for them.’ This sets up barriers to academic success. Banning books limits the links students can make between what they are learning and their own lives.
There’s one other important point I’d like to make. The difficult, even painful, issues that are considered controversial are not going to go away just because books that deal with them are banned. Poverty, inequities of all kinds, prejudice, and injustice will still need to be addressed. So will historical realities such as slavery, the Holocaust, and the impact of colonialism. And it’s very likely that students will face those problems if they aren’t already. Removing discussion of these challenges from textbooks and other books leaves students poorly equipped to address them.
So what can parents do to support wide reading and critical thinking, while still acknowledging that their children are just that – children? One important way (and research supports this, too) is to talk about what the child is reading and what the author is saying. I don’t mean conversations that end with, ‘You shouldn’t be reading that.’ Rather, I mean conversations that really explore the topic. Open conversations serve a lot of purposes. One is that discussion brings sometimes difficult issues into the open, so that students can make meaning from sometimes complex and challenging things. Another is that regular conversations about books cement the value of reading for the child.
Banning books won’t ban ideas. It won’t ban the sometimes-painful realities of the world. It may very well, however, limit students’ thinking, negatively impact their academic achievement, and leave them less well equipped to negotiate adult life. In other words, banning books doesn’t just set a dangerous precedent for adults. It’s just as problematic for young people.