Most eighth graders might blush and laugh uncertainly when they hear their classmates read the N-Word aloud in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In 2004, Garvey Jackson, a 13-year-old attending school in Hillsborough, N.C., was not as amused as his peers. After studying Lee’s novel in English class, Jackson went to school dressed in a shirt covered with the book’s many racial slurs, claiming that if the N-word is “good enough for the book, it’s good enough for the shirt.”
Earlier this month, the Biloxi Public School District in Mississippi echoed that sentiment when it removed To Kill a Mockingbird from its curriculum based on debates over the novel’s “uncomfortable” language — perhaps the same language that appeared on Jackson’s shirt.
Universities — centers for the advancement of modern academia — should not be afraid of the truth, but they, too, are not immune to the occasional act of book-banning. For instance, in 2008, officials at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis accused student janitor Keith John Sampson of racial harassment for reading a book about the Ku Klux Klan. Although Sampson obtained the book from the university’s library, officials still reprimanded him, comparing the instance to “bringing pornography to work.” After multiple complaints from the the American Civil Liberties Union and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the university’s chancellor officially apologized to Sampson, emphasizing the school’s belief in free expression.
The issue of censorship on college campuses was again brought to debate last year, when the University of Wisconsin-Stout removed murals depicting Native Americans and French fur traders from its walls. Although the paintings in question did not overtly depict any oppression of Native Americans, the university’s chancellor advocated that the murals be taken down because the art “symbolizes an era of their history where land and possessions were taken away from [Native Americans], and [students] feel bad when they look at them.” The chancellor believed that removing the potentially offensive paintings would “attract more Native American students to the university.”
In both cases, the universities sacrificed their core values based on weak attempts to uphold the image of political correctness; banning a book or taking down a mural does nothing to end the marginalization of minorities. On the contrary, these actions can worsen the problem, as we cannot confront our issues if we do not fully understand what they are. As models for higher learning, universities must stand firm in their commitment to giving their students a complete and honest education — and fully exposing them to the truth is an important part of that.
But criticizing a school’s limitations on free expression by no means offers a blank check for people to freely wave the Confederate flag and glorify racist ideologies as a celebration of their “history.” Classroom settings provide students with a crucial platform to engage in open discussion with their peers and learn from their viewpoints without feeling threatened. Exposure to a safe environment is critical to forming both an emotional and logical understanding of pressing social issues, and it can encourage students to make informed decisions when they approach these problems in the future.
The aforementioned school policies not only inhibit progress, but also undermine the principles of political correctness that they claim to uphold in the first place. The basic purpose of being politically correct is to exercise tolerance, as we cannot move forward as a society if we alienate minority populations along the way. But these schools seem to have taken this notion and run away with it. It is one thing to ask people to stop using the N-word; it is another to prevent them from ever seeing it. Discomfort with the realities of minorities’ experiences should not be a hindrance to intellectual development.
While the complaints of a few public schools in Mississippi may seem inconsequential, their arguments are just some of many that demand controversial books be banned from the school system. In fact, a Washington Post report on the topic states that last year, more than 300 formal complaints were issued against popular literary works such as the Harry Potter series, Fahrenheit 451 and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
If anything, that Lee’s book, which was published 57 years ago, remains a source of heated debate only proves the enduring need for it to remain in school curriculum. The groundbreaking novel has long been a critical resource for younger students, encouraging a sense of open-mindedness through its insightful portrayal of racism, social class and gender roles — serious themes that need serious words to communicate them. The education system must realize that censorship cannot be justified by discomfort. We cannot deal with major issues by pretending they do not exist.
In its entirety, the advocacy for educational censorship represents regressive attitudes that continue to plague schools today — and considering the divisive state of the current political climate, that argument does not seem to be leaving anytime soon. For now, perhaps school officials can benefit from taking a closer look at the books they decide to ban.