Op-ed: Why books should never be banned within the education system

Allana Knowles, contributor

Growing up as a shy, somewhat sheltered kid, I fell in love with reading the first time I picked up a novel. Books were my sanctuary, my way of escaping the real world, my way to learn about different experiences than my own. 

This fact still rings true to this day — reading is one of my favorite pastimes, as well as the most effective way to learn. Books like “1984” by George Orwell and “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury served as a type of entertainment, as well as education in the form of a warning about the horrors of censorship.

After reading and learning from books like these, the mass banning of books during the 2021-2022 school year, a phenomenon which is expected to continue through this year, feels uncomfortably familiar.

The practice of banning books has existed for centuries with the first book ever banned in the United States dating back to the 17th century. As long as people write about controversial subjects, others will be there to contest their ideas and vehemently advocate for the banning of the books.

Nowadays, banning books tends to look like concerned parents reading what they deem to be an inappropriate text and challenging the necessity and appropriateness of having that book in curriculum or in school libraries. Of course, as an avid reader myself, I’m against banning books in schools. It’s important to remember that books which are available in schools, whether through curriculum or the school library, have been selected by librarians and educators in order to educate the students who will be reading them. These books aren’t just picked arbitrarily — they have an educational purpose.

I can understand the notion of a parent bringing up concerns about a controversial book with their child’s school. I can understand the desire for a parent to want their opinions heard and for the education their children get to be up to par with their expectations. What has happened in the past school year seemingly will continue, however, goes far beyond that.

From July 2021 to June 2022, there have been 2,532 instances of books being banned (1,648 unique titles), as opposed to 273 in 2020, 377 in 2019 and 483 in 2018, according to PEN America. These bans span more than 138 school districts in 32 states, with over 4 million impacted students. This is not the work of reactive parents — rather, this unimaginably high number reflects the rise in advocacy groups trying to ban certain ideas in schools.

The ideas such groups wish to censor become clear when looking at which books are targeted. A substantial number of banned books over the last school year either have LGBTQ+ themes or a prominent LGBTQ+ character (41%), or contain a prominent character of color (40%). This is extremely damaging because without representation, minorities may feel they and their experiences are unimportant, invalid and unvalued. Additionally, for those not part of the LGBTQ+ community or a specific race or ethnicity, good representation provides critical education about issues such as racism and homophobia.

It is my belief that organizations that rally to ban certain books do so with the insidious intention of pushing a conservative, heteronormative and racist agenda under the guise of looking out for the innocence of children. When there are upwards of 50 organizations like this, one of which has been classified as an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group, operating at a local, state or national level, composed of individuals who don’t even have children in the schools they are targeting, the motivations of those involved in this movement seem less like a personal concern and more like a political agenda.

Book bans mostly impact students in elementary, middle and high school, so at Northeastern we don’t necessarily have to worry about book bans the way those in lower education need to.

Nevertheless, with the amount of books being banned so far this year — with at least 139 additional bans since July 2022 — it’s safe to say that the issue is still prevalent and will be for the foreseeable future. Banning books, and censorship of any kind, puts education at risk. It is suppression of speech and progressive ideas.

The belief that LGBTQ+ themes are inherently obscene and inappropriate and books with prominent characters of color or themes about racism are “critical race theory,” a bastardized term which essentially encapsulates any work involving race — particularly one which makes white people uncomfortable — is harmful towards these minorities.

It’s important to have diverse ideas represented in curriculums and school libraries so children are able to develop their own perspectives, as well as understand different experiences and be exposed to different cultures. Personally, without reading the books I did growing up, I would be a different person than who I am today. Just remember, you become the books you read.

Allana Knowles is a fourth-year politics, philosophy and economics major. She can be reached at [email protected].