I’m a teacher who loves to teach, but as the new school year begins, I’ve become a reluctant culture warrior. I fight against a reflexive cancellation culture that calls for the banning of books and authors in often capricious ways. And I am convinced that it is our students who will lose in this war.
For decades, I have woven my dual passion for literature and adolescent education into an enriching practice of reading with young people. I believe in the power of literature to move and transform us. This belief led me to become a high school English teacher and eventually a college professor in Minnesota, teaching future literature teachers.
In my own classrooms, I have seen the power of Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” recently banned from Tennessee school libraries, as students grapple with the horrors of the Holocaust in a classroom full of confidence and of bravery. I listened to heated discussions about race after students read “The Hate You Give,” which was banned from schools in Katy, Texas, in 2018 and is now only available with permission parental. The same book has been consistently ranked in the Top 10 Most Disputed Books of the Year by the American Library Association. And yes, I have seen the benefit of studying the “To Kill a Mockingbird” perpetual challenge. I’ve heard students tell me that they’ve waited their entire lives as readers to encounter the work of a writer who reflects their heritage, as they read Toni Morrison, Sherman Alexie, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston or other authors of color, who today are among the writers whose work has been challenged and banned by school boards across America.
My willingness to fight hard for the continued presence of these targeted texts in my classroom is rooted in the importance of the lessons I and my students have learned from them, lessons that I want others to have the opportunity to learn. . For example, reading John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” as a socially isolated ninth grader taught me that we’re all just one person away from the kind of abject loneliness that the characters in this novel feel. . Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” taught me both the relentless cruelty and resilience of which we human beings are capable, just when I was beginning to suspect the existence of both. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie taught me that my own anguished adolescence was both particular and universal. And that balance between particularity and universality is, I believe, where the ability to connect with others really begins. As a new teacher and a former teacher, watching students express their growing empathy for Tom Robinson, learning the well-taught lessons of Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” taught me some merits of a contested and dated text that worth keeping.
But now, choosing the books to teach my students has become an agonizing task with political, professional and ethical dimensions. I’m afraid that everything from the selection of texts, the inclusion of controversial topics, the author’s biography and potentially “trigger topics” conspires to move my class from a safe and comfortable place to learn, but challenging, to a place filled with mistrust, mistrust, and second guessing.
As in high school classrooms, I have seen how the atmosphere in college and university classrooms is marred by the effects of this culture war. As a tenured university teacher, I recognize that my ability to choose prohibited or targeted texts is far superior to that of my K-12 colleagues. I no longer receive objections or parental restrictions on content from the school administration. Yet culture was creeping into my college classroom, with students increasingly willing to challenge my right and the right of my colleagues to choose to teach texts with offensive language, anachronistic worldviews or “trigger” topics. They seem so much less inclined to believe that we will be able to navigate the delicate terrain of these texts together. And yet, I think that kind of browsing is precisely what I should be doing with them.
As an experienced teacher, I’m used to the predictable censored complaints about text selection from those who call themselves “cultural curators.” Objections to explicit language or inappropriate content have existed for as long as books have existed. While teaching English in high school, I learned to arm myself with carefully crafted rationales, a sensitivity to parental perspectives, and the support of professional organizations and fearless librarians. Yet in recent years, I have observed that the movement to ban particular texts has developed a large army of culture warriors, among school board elected officials; local, state and national politicians; and parents who flock to noisy school board meetings.
Moreover, it looks like a new war. Increasingly, books dealing with themes related to race, gender identity and sexuality are banned. A 2022 PEN America study identified that a third of all books that are currently being removed from classrooms and libraries deal with LGBTQ issues, while a fifth deal directly with race and racism.
And, cancel culture has subjected once revered authors to a kind of scrutiny, based on their personal ideologies or allegations of misconduct, that is unprecedented in its speed and determination. This includes authors such as Sherman Alexie, JK Rowling, Junot Diaz, even holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.
While I do not defend or question the baffling allegations circulating around some of these writers, I will defend the right and perhaps the need to separate the author from the text, the artist from the work and the music composer. Canceling them not only punishes the offending author, but punishes our students by depriving them of valuable reading experiences that are nearly impossible to replicate.
Over the past few years, I have watched with growing concern the aforementioned increase in the desire to cleanse the literature curriculum of any text that contains offensive language or depictions. Racism, sexism, homophobia and other types of prejudice should not be tolerated, but removing all offensive text deprives students of having the conversations needed to help us learn from our troubled and shameful past. I choose to challenge these books by teaching and problematizing them. For example, I have seen how teaching about the controversy surrounding texts such as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or “To Kill a Mockingbird” can help engage students in meaningful discussions about race, language, social justice and censorship.
If we expect our students to approach the political and cultural difficulties of our time with honesty and sincerity, we must show courage and confidence. Our high school students need to be invited into the conversation. For example, a high school teacher I know discussed the controversy surrounding Sherman Alexie with his class and had a discussion about whether they should still read “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” . They did it. Another teacher showed the documentary, Born to Trouble, about “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and discussed the power of the “n-word” and whether its presence in a text should prevent that text from being discussed. in class. High school students deserve to be part of the conversations, not the cancellations. My students deserve teachers who are willing to stand up to the cultural zeitgeist and challenge them when they don’t want to give a troubled text (or a teacher’s ability to navigate it) a chance.
These are particularly difficult times for educators. My fellow teachers and I find ourselves in a bitterly divided country with ideological discourse reaching a fever pitch. My belief is that to overcome these perils, our classrooms must remain spaces where critical thinking is taught, tolerance for different viewpoints is modeled, and the sometimes harsh truths of our history and literary heritage are openly acknowledged. I am ready to speak frankly with colleagues and parents from all political backgrounds who disagree with me, and with other teachers like me. I am willing to craft strong justifications for the books I am willing to fight for, and I, alongside many of my fellow educators, am willing to fight for them; in our classrooms, in school boardrooms, in our state capitols and in the media.
In the interest of our students, teachers must therefore resist the pressures of censorship, cancellation and retribution, whatever the sources from which these pressures emerge. We need to trust our abilities to be sensitive without pretending that the sources of our discomfort can simply be erased. Erasure, denial, repudiation, and rejection can all leave the hard questions unanswered, and at this time I am convinced that such denials constitute a grave breach at a time when our duty is most required.
I think literature can indeed heal us, but it can also, in its most powerful form, help us feel the pain of others. Literature dislocates us, disturbs our sense of well-being and pushes us to confront discomfort. As Kafka wrote,
“..we need books that affect us like a catastrophe, that afflict us deeply, like the death of someone we love more than ourselves, like being banished to forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the ax to the frozen sea in us. It is my conviction.
This is also my belief.
Deborah Appleman is Hollis L. Caswell Professor and Chair of Educational Studies at Carleton College. She is the author of Literature and the New Culture Wars: Triggers, Cancel Culture, and the Teacher’s Dilemma.
All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.