Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel masterpiece, Maus, has been banned in Tennessee schools. “They want a kinder, gentler, fuzzier Holocaust,” he told the New York Times reporter, Alexandra Alter, in an article published in the Arts section on December 28th. Maus is not the only book that has been banned in American public schools.
The list is long. One of Governor Ron DeSantis’ minions has compiled a list of 850 “very dangerous” books that should be expunged from Florida’s school library shelves, and from school curricula. Books about transgender relationships or same sex marriage relationships written by “groomers” and “pedophiles” are especially dangerous, they say. Who comes up with these imaginative distortions of reality?
Some parents support book banning. They are so protective of their children that one wonders if their progeny will be able to thrive in the 21st century when so many informative books are forbidden and their children remain ignorant of history and contemporary society.
Censorship, banning and shunning is not a new story in America’s schools, where backlash against advances in civil rights and science is a given, though it is much more intense and angrier these days, amplified by vociferous ill-mannered school board members and opportunistic politicians.
Many librarians, teachers and administrators are playing it safe, or quitting, in a surrender to the bullies and their “woke” neighbors, left and right, Black and white.
But it’s not a new story. It’s an American tradition, a flaw in the body politic. During the McCarthy era, teachers were pilloried for their ostensible left-wing progressive ideas. They were smeared and then fired, a habit of disgracing educators that continued into the 1950s and 1960s, and beyond, up to today.
When I was student teaching at Montera Junior High School, a nearly all-white gerrymandered school district in the Oakland, California hills in the late 1960s, I was threatened with life-time banishment from teaching. The principal of the school decided I was a “subversive” because I allowed my students to write, edit, and produce their own newspaper as a class project. It included reviews of controversial books the students had read, op-eds about war and peace, and a profile of Martin Luther King, Jr., written by the only Black student in the class. These kids were smart, curious, and, like most kids, a joy to teach. But I was summoned by the principal, a John Bircher (remember them?) who said, “You will never teach in the State of California.”
The postgrad administration at University of California at Berkeley sent me to Oakland Technical High School in the valley for my second term of student teaching in a nearly all-Black gerrymandered school district. I was in for another, different shock: the textbooks were 40 years old and the students were falling asleep from boredom. I bought an anthology of short stories, one for each student to keep and take home, and began the term by moving the desks into a circle, seminar-style, so that we could have a rousing round-table discussion of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, for starters. My only instruction was: “Don’t only write down what I say, or what others say, write what you are thinking when others are talking. Don’t bother to raise your hand, but listen hard, and don’t interrupt.”
As for irrelevant textbooks, I plead guilty to having written some of them when I returned from London many years later. A high school friend suggested I work for her as a “language arts writer,” in preparation for “the adoption process” of textbooks by Texas and California. Without these two states, the textbook companies had little chance of being profitable, she said. Did I know about the various “constraints,” what I could and could not write about? No, I did not.
So, this was the deal, she continued: nothing too controversial on any subject was permitted, language had to be homogenized and dull (no dialect, no hip language, no sexual content), and suggestions for teachers should be simple.
It is my intuition that many well-trained, devoted teachers are storing away their irrelevant textbooks, as I once did, and bringing banned books into the classroom at their own expense and at great risk to themselves and their careers. I wish them fortitude in the months and years ahead. They will need it.
Carol Bergman is a journalist and educator based in New Paltz, NY. She did get her California State Teaching License, “issued for Life,” a collectible, signed by Governor Ronald Reagan.