Book Bans: The "Free" World's Method of Control

Emily Reed

While the United States of America is seen as a world leader in many aspects, and prides itself in being the country of freedom, free speech, and individual autonomy, many American schools are limiting it through books. Banning books in American schools is on the rise, in which Republican legislatures aim to control what material is being taught in the public education system, ranging from sexuality, history, to critical race theory. 

At the end of 2021, there were just over 300 books being challenged in various local school boards in the United States, mostly in Republican-governed states. While it may not seem like a large number, especially when compared to the nearly 100,000 public schools in the country, it’s a big issue and concerning for the future of American education. Free speech advocates across the United States are insisting that these campaigns, mostly run by Conservative parents and school board members, need to be paid attention to and could easily grow into a bigger societal issue.

Why is this happening now, though? Why is there a move to ban books in America’s public education system? Unfortunately, challenging books in public school curriculums isn’t new, but now, it’s gaining more traction and will have severe impacts on how children are being taught.

In the 1990s, common arguments for banning books in schools were about obscenities and sexual content. In the early 2000s, people became more comfortable when it came to challenging books that were found in their children’s curriculum. As Harry Potter grew in popularity, Christian, right-wing parents in the United States heavily pushed to ban the saga from schools because they claimed it glorified witchcraft and discouraged Christianity.

In 2020, it escalated. The American Library Association (ALA) said that the two most challenged books Alex Gino’s Melissa - a middle grade book about a transgender child - and Ibram X Kendi and Jason Reynold’s Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You. Shortly after those, in 7th place, was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

A school board in Florida pulled George Matthew’s book, All the Boys Aren’t Blue, a collection of essays about his experiences as a queer, black man living in today’s America. The main arguments behind banning these books were from right-wing parents and school board members, in which they claimed that these books were full of racial slurs and negatively impacted student’s perception and mental well-being. 

Fast forward to January 2022, Wentzville School Board, a small community outside of St Louis, Missouri, rallied together and challenged Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye due to it’s depiction of sexuality and sexual abuse; after there was enough parental outcry surrounding the book, the school board gave in and banned it from its schools. 

Source: CBS News & YouGov poll

A Tennessee school board also banned the book Maus by Art Spiegelman, a non-fiction book presented in a graphic-novel style about the horrors of the holocaust. The argument from right-wing parents was that the main topic — the holocaust — was objectionable language, and that there were examples of nudity portrayed throughout.

These are just a few examples of what books have been banned in the United States recently; all of them include experiences of people in marginalized groups that want to share their life and how it differs from the majority — usually white, straight, cisgendered people.

On a more terrifying level of this book ban is what is occuring at a state level. While book bans and campaigns against books that touch on topics of sexuality, racism, slavery, and world history, is on a local and municipal level, state governments are going the extra mile.

State governments in the US are focusing on banning critical race theory, in hopes to constrain teachers’ speech. Currently, every Republican-controlled state that’s legislature is in session, has an “educational gag order” in the works. If these bills go forward, any lessons about critical race theory and the general concept of racism and marginalized communities will be prohibited. As a way to ensure that teachers aren’t going against this ban, there’s even the notion of implementing live webcams in classrooms. And to go one step further, an Oklahoma state senator has proposed that allows parents to challenge books in public schools; if the book isn’t banned right away, the parents would have the right to collect a $10,000 bounty for every day it remains in the school.

The rise of these book bans is just the tip of a massive iceberg. This is a growing movement which uses state and local governments to control free speech, thinking, and ideas. These bans aim to push ideologically-crooked ideas and decide what children should be able to learn about American history, culture, and society.

Rather than openly discuss American history, right-wing, conservative parents and lawmakers want to prevent children from learning about white supremacy, racism, sexuality, and gender at all. Rather than have discussions and discourse, this movement is about ignoring these issues and not discussing them at all. Over the past year, Texas, Tennessee, Iowa, Idaho, and Oklahoma have all enacted bills that make book bans easier and more accessible; these bills are moving into at least 20 other states with strong Republican backing. Racism in the United States is a major problem that has shaped the history of the country, and not enough of it is being taught in schools. Schools need to teach ideas, historical events, and encourage open discussions — accurately and objectively. Without books, especially ones that are reflective of American society today, it takes away any opportunity for conversations and learning to be had. 

It’s ironic that the United States of America, historically speaking, has gloated about how it’s the world leader in freedom and autonomy, yet, its citizens are being controlled in a very unique and horrific way — through education. Book bans are currently the “free” world’s method of control, and lawmakers and school boards need to put a pin in this movement before it gains even more momentum.

Emily Reed

“There’s always room for more mental health advocacy. Mental health looks different on everyone, and I feel that if I can write about my experiences, surely someone will be able to relate. Sometimes I struggle with my mental health when I’m doing something I’m supposed to love, like traveling, and although it seems weird at the time, it’s totally okay -- our emotions and feelings will always be valid.”
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