Students Lose Important Lessons with Book Bans and Curricular Restrictions

Book bans and curricular restrictions limit students' empathy and imagination

If I were the only person feeling overwhelmed by the firehose of news and information we are faced with every day, the book I am currently reading, Stolen Focus by Johann Hari, would not have spent four weeks on the best seller list. But two stories have risen above the noise for me, namely challenged books in K–12 curricula and politically motivated curricular reform efforts up to the college level. In reflecting on why they have been on my mind, and why I am so angered by them, I find myself returning to some fundamental principles of librarianship and how they might help create a more inclusive educational environment.

I am writing this from Tennessee, the state where I grew up and the state I returned to in 2018 after a decade in the Northeast. Things are not good here, y’all. I have been dismayed, but not surprised, to see the state legislature’s efforts to restrict what can be taught in public schools, and that we are among dozens of states considering or passing similar legislation, but I was surprised and enraged when news broke that the next county over removed Maus from its curriculum. I cannot attempt to understand the intentions of people who want to restrict the use of a graphic novel to teach young people the horrors of the Holocaust, or who want to control what topics can be taught when lessons do not align with their perceptions of race, gender, or sexuality in the United States.

But I think I can predict the impact.

And if I am right, every student loses when policies like this succeed: both those from privileged backgrounds (who I presume these efforts are meant to protect), and those who feel excluded from the dominant culture for whatever reason, be it aspects of identity or ideology.

Young people who are descendants of a dominant culture often see themselves represented in popular culture and thus lose an opportunity to expand their empathetic imagination. Even more heartbreaking, the students who might already feel isolated lose the chance to see themselves in their curriculum, to receive the signal from those responsible for their education that their stories matter too. These efforts are antithetical to traditional notions of liberty or the intellectual diversity that is said to be lacking in our schools. Furthermore, refusing to teach difficult subjects in schools will very likely send students to other forums that might be riddled with misinformation.

Aside from diagnosing the causes of our distracted culture, Stolen Focus also considers the downstream effects of our diminished attention. In a chapter discussing changes in reading habits and sustained attention, Hari explores recent research on the connection between fiction and empathy. Building on previous work that suggested reading novels improves an individual’s capacity for empathy, new studies provide a strong correlation between reading fiction and being able to read other people’s emotions compared to reading nonfiction. Hari likens fiction to “an empathy gym, boosting your ability to empathize with other people.” This certainly resonates with my own experience, thinking about how, as a straight, white, cisgender man, I have explored the lives of people unlike me through many different novels. The written word provides an opportunity for those of us who have lived privileged lives to have a better understanding of those who have not. Taking a book like Maus off a young person’s reading list is a missed opportunity.

When I wrote to my local legislator about TN House Bill 800, restricting the use of “instructional materials that promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgender issues or lifestyles,” I noted that we were harming more than helping. Even worse than being denied access to Hari’s “empathy gym” is to go most of your life without seeing yourself represented in your educational environment, or to learn a vocabulary that helps you better understand yourself. Especially in the case of LGBTQ youth, who are statistically more likely to suffer from mental health challenges, removing from the curriculum any evidence of their existence seems especially cruel.

Knowledge should be provisional, not provincial. This requires intellectual humility but teaching topics as true to our best understanding of them is the only path to progress. I see complaints about the lack of intellectual diversity in colleges coming from the same organizations that are now trying to shut out meaningful dialog in those same spaces. I can, and hope to, find common ground with proponents of intellectual diversity. But I fear the consequences of stifling meaningful conversations about sensitive and challenging topics, for whatever political purpose.

As a librarian, I subscribe to the platitude that information wants to be free; as an academic librarian, I believe in the transformative power of open inquiry and research; as an instruction librarian, I consider this a battle not only in the culture wars, but also the misinformation wars.

The connections between freedom of speech, academic freedom, and DEIA are strong, but in my mind, not without their tensions. I hope this will be the beginning of a conversation about how these ideas relate to information bubbles, other politically motivated curricular reform efforts, and how neutral a librarian in the 21st century is meant to be.

Dunstan McNutt headshot

About the author:

Dunstan McNutt is an Instruction Librarian at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. He has an M.A. in history and an M.L.S. from Indiana University, Bloomington.

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.