Image courtesy of EGSC Library.
West Torrance High School

Reconciling educational opportunity and age appropriateness

The ten most challenged books of 2015 were revealed in the 2016 State of America’s Library Report. Additionally, the American Library Association (ALA)’s 2016 Banned Books Week is Sept. 25 – Oct. 1.

To clarify the distinction between a “challenge” and a “ban”, the ALA states that “A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials.” The ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) compiles challenges reported in the media and submissions by librarians and teachers, although the OIF “[does] not claim comprehensiveness in recording challenges as research suggests that for each challenge reported there are as many as four or five that go unreported.”

The United States Courts state that “Freedom of speech does not include the right to make or distribute obscene materials.” There is some subjectivity involved in making a judgement as to whether or not a banned or challenged book’s contents are obscene. Banned and challenged books often deal with controversial topics and content such as sexuality, religion, and profanity, subject matter that can be difficult to discuss with students.

Mrs. Elwood, West Torrance High School AP Literature and Semantics teacher, noticed the increased use of profanity by authors over time, and subsequent reactions from audiences nationwide. She recalls a scene in which Katie Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler’s husband Rhett declared: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” after asking him what she should do when he decides to leave her.

“MGM wrangled relentlessly to get the word ‘damn’ approved by censors because audiences in 1939 eagerly anticipated this superb slam at the end of ‘Gone with the Wind.’  After all, ‘I don’t give a darn’ lacks intensity,” she explained. “Now F-bombs assail ears, and people have grown deaf. Overuse robs profanity of shock value. Authors, in turn, feel the ever-increasing need to bow to the new normal and shove these little jewels into their characters’ mouths.”

“Age appropriateness” of material is a valid concern for many parents and caretakers of children and young adults, who are still developing and impressionable. Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that promotes safe use of media for children, believes in “sanity, not censorship.”

The issue of policing access to books connects to the broader issue of determining whether it is and when it is appropriate to restrict access to other forms of media, such as music, television, film, and in addition to those that do not yet exist, as new forms of media will inevitably crop up in light of technological advancement.

In its mission statement, Common Sense Media says: “Achieving a healthy approach to media and technology can make a big difference in kids’ lives today.  Kids who learn to use digital media wisely can accomplish amazing things — learn new skills, explore new worlds, build new ideas, and change the world.”

“Regardless of societal shifts, literature is still about lives lived, in all the messiness of humanity; therefore, students should not be excessively sheltered from profanity and sexual situations.” – Mrs. Elwood

West High English students read classics which have frequently been banned or challenged in libraries and classrooms across the country. Books such as “The Great Gatsby,” “Of Mice and Men,” “The Lord of the Flies,” “1984,” and “Their Eyes Were Watching God” are taught in order to impart life lessons and broaden students’ perspectives with characters of varying backgrounds and time periods.

Sophomore Audrey Kono recalls the insight she gained from reading Lord of the Flies.

“We see children as the image of innocence, but we grow up to be cutthroat ourselves in order to achieve our goals. I couldn’t believe that children would do something as savage as what they did in the [book], but I could definitely see adults as capable of doing so.”

While the right to free speech is not a free-for-all, umbrella clause that protects all forms of expression, discomfort with controversial subject matter lends no legal power to a group or individual hoping to prevent access to certain books. Although experience is often a merciless but effective teacher, it can be gleaned secondhand through literature.

“When an author takes a direct statement that has no impact when someone hears it, and they show what the statement means through their writing, it gets people thinking, and then it gets people talking,” reflected Kono.

In light of perpetually changing times, Mrs. Elwood recognizes the importance of students’ exposure to situations outside of their comfort zone.

“Regardless of societal shifts, literature is still about lives lived, in all the messiness of humanity; therefore, students should not be excessively sheltered from profanity and sexual situations.”

Her take on balancing educational opportunity and age appropriateness?

“Teachers must – and do – make grade appropriate choices. Trust us.”