I Hadn’t Planned to Write This…

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.


26 thoughts on “I Hadn’t Planned to Write This…

  1. Fantastic post, Margot. I also working in education for many years, but in the technical support side. I do remember how much critical thinking skills were stressed at the community college I worked for. And I am proud that my parents never tried to control my reading as a child or a teenager (and I read a lot) and I never did that when my son was young.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, Tracy. I’m sure you’ve seen how important critical thinking skills are in education, in technical support, and in just about any other area. That’s one reason those skills need to be stressed. I’m very glad, too, that you grew up free to read what you wanted (and that your son did, too). I think that’s one of the best ways to get different perspectives and broaden one’s thinking.

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  2. Well said, Margot! The terrifying thing here is that, under the guise of protesting the non-existent teaching of critical race theory to K-12 readers, those who would ban books are actually trying to ban (or burn!!) texts and literature that present a true-to-life picture of our country’s history. As an educator for thirty-one years myself, I can’t stress enough how important it is that students see themselves represented in what they read. And the best texts that focus on diverse Americans, whether by race, culture, gender, or sexual orientation, are texts that tell the truth. The horrifying fact is that there are people in positions of power who do not want the truth to be spoken, let alone taught. You put all this beautifully here.

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    1. Thanks very much, Brad. You’re absolutely right that one of the serious consequences of banning books is that it means that students are not learning the truth, whether it’s about an historical event or something else. Events that are actually documented, and people who actually have created, etc., are therefore ‘erased.’ You also make a very well-taken point that it is vitally important that students hear voices like theirs, and, as you say, see themselves represented in what they read and learn. Without that connection, students are disengaged and, as they end up seeing it, disenfranchised. Add to that the distorted picture of history, science, and so on that students get if books are banned, and you have a whole generation of students who will likely face real challenges as they try to make sense of adult life. I remember the sense of betrayal I felt when I learned how much I hadn’t learned in my history classes. Imagine how much worse it is for students who are completely disenfranchised. I appreciate your thoughts on this.

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  3. Well said, Margot. I always see the problem as a “who decides” one. In truth, I think there are plenty of books that should never see the light of day and certainly shouldn’t be available for children to read unsupervised, just as I wouldn’t allow a child to surf the internet unsupervised. The problem is that my list of unsuitable books wouldn’t necessarily be someone else’s list. Unfortunately those who decide tend to do so from fairly extreme political stances, so that it becomes a subject of contention, whereas I feel in the past (perhaps with my rose-coloured spectacles on) that there was a general societal agreement about what was or wasn’t suitable for kids to read/watch, etc. It used to be that schools and universities were places where young people were taught how to think, but increasingly in this country (and I suspect in many others) it seems that young people are being told what to think, and deviations from the current fashionable opinions are not allowed to be expressed, or indeed read about. Critical thinking, and certainly critical discussion, has become quite rare in a world where the slightest act of non-conformism can result in bullying, labelling, expulsion and “cancelling”. It’s a strange old world we’ve made in the name of “freedom”.

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    1. Thanks, FictionFan. You make a very well-taken point about the big question of ‘who decides.’ As you say, there are books I wouldn’t want to see in print or given to children without supervision. But whose list is the one we follow? Whose values, etc., do we follow? And what about views that are different? That’s the tougher question. And, yes, young people then become pawns in a political game, instead of independent adult thinkers who can critically evaluate what they read and make sense of it. There is a difference between how to think and what to think, and this is, I believe, where teaching students critical thinking skills becomes, well, critical. The trouble is, when students are not given a chance to hear a variety of views and voices, and make sense of them, they don’t learn to think for themselves.

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  4. Thank you for a thoughtful post on the evil of banning books. It is my observation that book “banners” come from the extreme left and extreme right. Each end of the spectrum is righteous and intolerant. I have often wondered if the “banners” are readers. Have they actually – personally – read the books they would ban? I doubt they read or they would not be “banners”. As a library board member in Melfort for over 40 years I have opposed removing books because they are offensive to someone or to some group. All readers have encountered books they find offensive. I have never considered that a reason to ban a book. The zealots of the world do not want a thinking population. Readers are dangerous to them as readers reflect upon what they have read. It is telling to me that books favoured by one end of the ideological spectrum are subject to banning by the other end. I believe it important readers everywhere stand up for the right to read.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts on this, Bill. You ask a really important question, I think: do people who want to ban books actually read those books? Like you, I doubt that they are readers. As you say, readers reflect on what they read, and on what they hear. Extremists on both sides of the political spectrum don’t want readers and thinkers, because readers don’t mindlessly follow, if I can put it that way. You’re right, too, about books people find offensive. If I find a book or topic offensive, I don’t have to continue reading. But that doesn’t mean the book should be banned. I’m glad you’re on the library board, because it is important to hold the line against banning books.

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  5. Margot, I’m honored that my modest reference to the topic triggered such a thoughtful on-the-mark essay that in and of itself proves how valuable reading in one’s youth is toward developing serious thinkers of the future. Thank you.

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    1. Thanks very much, Jeff, for the kind words. And thanks for the inspiration; you are right that we need to take a stand against banning books. Too much is at stake for us to let it go without speaking out.

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  6. Yes thank you very thoughtful post. I am a South African and I have been following all that has been happening in the US closely and often with bewilderment. The US was for me, for us in many ways the city on the hill. Many books were banned here by the apartheid regime and it is sad and scary that it is being mooted in the US. Wishing you well in this battle

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    1. Thank you, Di. I had the privilege of visiting South Africa a few years after the end of apartheid, and I remember the joy at the thought that people could now read and discuss what they wished. We must be careful not to take that for granted, and to be vigilant.

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  7. An excellent post, Margot. “Banning books limits students’ thinking. Banning books silences people’s voices…”
    It would be interesting to know how much those who wish to ban books read.

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    1. Thanks, Carol. I’m glad you thought the post worked. You ask a really interesting question, too. I would like to know whether and how much people who want to ban books actually read. My uninformed guess is, probably little if at all.

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  8. What a thoughtful post, Margot. As a mother of a young child, I feel that parental guidance is at times needed but am totally against banning of books. As the child matures, he/ she is free to read the book. Likewise I am against bowdlerization of books. If we do away with whatever is considered offensive from our 21st century perspective, we are creating a very false picture of the past and belittling those who fought against those oppressions. Just my two cents.

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    1. Thank you, Neeru. There is a difference, I believe, between parental guidance (which I agree is sometimes necessary) and banning books. As you say, if books are available, then children can read them when they are ready. To ban books, though, means that children do not have access to those ideas, and that, to me, is dangerous. Thank you, also, for bringing up bowdlerization. That, too, is a form of censorship, isn’t it? And I think you’re right that it gives readers a distorted picture of the past, and certainly disrespects those who worked so hard (and in some cases, gave their lives) to make things better.

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  9. I have been watching these events for the last couple of years (in USA), and sadly here in GB we are being hit with critical this and that theory, The WOKE brigade seems to be taking over our universities and big establishments and they want to erase our history, writers, and so much more. People who disagree or dare argue back, being ‘cancelled.’ I have always used the OFF switch when I don’t agree with a TV programme/documentary or whatever if I am ‘offended.’ Same with books, I do not have to read them. Same with people. I like to discuss debate and exchange ideas, but never force my opinions down someone else’s; throat. I don’t cancel those I disagree with. Intolerance is rife. I never thought I’d live to see the day! It is quite terrifying. We only need to go back 80 years to see where book burning and all this intolerance leads. I am not keen to go there. How anyone could damage a book, is beyond me. Rewriting history is a fool’s errand. We learn by our mistakes, pretending they never happened does no favours.

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    1. You’ve brought up a very important point, Jane. Disagreeing with someone’s ideas doesn’t mean that those ideas should not be available. As you say, if you don’t want to read a certain book/see a certain film/elect a certain person, then you don’t have to read it/see it/vote for that person. Banning books really comes down to ideas and viewpoints and voices that are silenced. And that doesn’t help us address the challenges we face as a society. Worse (and you point this out, too), banning and bowdlerizing gives a distorted view of our past, which doesn’t equip us to learn from what has happened. I honestly don’t see how destroying or removing books will serve any purpose; ideas will not go away just because a book is banned. And not making room for different perspectives is so dangerous. As you say, you only need to look back a bit to see the outcome, and it’s horrifying.

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