There was a recent clip from The View that went viral on Twitter after one of the guests took a stand against banning books in schools. That guest was LeVar Burton, a popular actor who starred as Kunta Kinte in the ABC miniseries Roots and who is an author himself. Burton’s message to everyone was clear, “Read the books that they are banning. That is where the good stuff is.”
Over the past few years, we have seen books which were deemed potentially offensive over controversial drawings or ideas not limited to race, gender, orientation, and history. Additionally, there has been a push to change curriculums, particularly those that focus on reading and writing, and “modernizing” the selection of books available to students. That has resulted in Shakespeare masterpieces like Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth getting replaced with other books.
It is interesting to think about the dilemma of banning books, and how these books could be best put to use. Academia fails when it allows politics or activism to determine how the educational system should function instead of relying on learning, knowledge, and reason.
Reintroducing “Banned Books” Into School Curriculums
School curriculums should reintroduce “banned books” into school curriculums for reflective learning and critical thinking purposes. The focus needs to be on helping students identify the shortcomings of these materials and how they conflict with modern thinking. However, these milestones need to take place when students have the capacity to understand these complexities, with age-appropriateness being determined by experts.
Although primary school kids might not be able to pick up on the insensitive and at times quite offensive drawings in Dr. Seuss books, there may be an opportunity to reintroduce those books at higher grade level where older elementary students can reflect on how different of a place the world was back in 1904 when the author of those books, Theodor Seuss Geisel, was born.
The most important element in reintroducing these books is determining at what age do school kids begin to have the capacity to fully grasp the magnitude of past realities like persecution. While a primary school kid might laugh at the silly drawings of various characters in Dr. Seuss Books, more mature students are able to connect the characters to racist representations of ethnic stereotypes or the degradation of black people with blackface caricatures. More mature school kids are able to recognize all that these characters symbolize, and it can all be one part of a larger curriculum that focuses on the global persecution of historic peoples across all continents.
To this day, I remember almost all my elementary and secondary school teachers, including my Grade 12 English teacher Ms. Haley. I remember when she started a class discussion in early Fall during the 2008 Olympics and how I responded to a question by saying that I had it in me to beat every Olympian if I started training from birth, including Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. But more important than this one-off exchange, I remember reading The Kite Runner and just how shocking that novel was. There was a lot to take in like the thought of barbaric killings, torture, rape, suicide and more. However, that story is an everyday reality for people living in second and third-world countries, and it serves as a reminder about just how lucky we all are to be living in Canada. The world is not a kind place for many people, and it is important that adolescents who are turning 18 and becoming “adults” know that reality.
The Relevance of Shakespeare
At the start of 2021 I remember listening to a radio interview featuring a guest that was from The Australian Shakespeare Company with an educational background that was also in something to do with Shakespeare. This period also coincided with the hot topic issue about high schools retiring Shakespeare literature from their curriculums. There was a variety of reasons given as to why Shakespeare’s literature needed to be replaced. I remember thinking before listening to that radio interview that there was a lack relevance with today’s world and Shakespeare’s literature, but my opinion changed after listening to the theatrical figure dissect some of Shakespeare’s work.
How can Shakespeare stories like Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet or Macbeth have any relevance with today’s world? Well, Shakespeare’s stories are about love, power, fear, death, redemption, humanity, and more. Almost every character goes through some sort of trial and tribulation, and some have redemptive outcomes while others do not. While the old language might be challenging for some readers, the themes within are what can connect with what youth go through and what every person is likely to experience.
There is also a personal relevance, as whenever I find myself in a sketchy situation, one of the first things that comes to mind is the quote, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Although this is my go-to Shakespeare quote, I have a whole repertoire of quotes thanks to a time when I only used Elizabethan English to address one of my high school English teachers after they claimed I incorrectly translated a passage from one of Shakespeare’s famous books. However, since graduating from high school, this is the only time I have utilized my knowledge of the Elizabethan dialect of English apart from the occasional social media post.
Those on the front lines of this debate are star-crossed. Although we are unable to look into the seeds of time to determine which grain will grow and which will not, we can be sure that the dilemma of banning books is one will require continuous thinking.