Book Banning and the Fight for Historical Literacy

2022 has been an intense year for classroom censorship. From laws striking down the 1619 Project to Maus’s removal from classrooms in Tennessee, conservative governments across the country have made numerous attempts to control what students can and cannot learn about history, culture, and the world. For this article, let’s get acquainted with some of the books being challenged, why these complaints are being made, and how girls+ can help to keep a free flow of ideas going in this country.

Under the cover of “protecting children,” lawmakers across the country are cracking down on students’ ability to learn about historical and ongoing injustices. What they call “divisive” content is often historical fact, spoken from the perspective of those that lived it. True, Maus, All Boys Aren’t Blue, The Bluest Eye, and The Hate U Give deal with challenging topics, but shying away from the ugliness that inspired them wasn’t an option for the people who experienced genocide, homophobia, racism, and police shootings in their real lives. Further, as Marilisa Jimenez Garcia with The Atlantic observes, “The sanitization of history in the name of shielding children assumes, incorrectly, that today’s students are untouched by oppression, imprisonment, death, or racial and ethnic profiling.” If the digital age has taught us anything, it’s that old systems of oppression do not go away, and people can now document their experiences with injustice at younger ages. 

What’s more, much of this has been organized by and through social media channels like Facebook, where censorship advocates can spread their talking points like wildfire. They come up with short, catchy excuses for why they dislike a certain book, and because of the nature of the internet, that complaint reaches a far wider audience than the entire book, which has room for more nuanced discussions of its themes and complex emotions. Viral bad-faith criticism has always been a problem on social media, but it’s another animal entirely when those bad faith arguments have the ears of legislators around the country.

Education is not neutral; it never has been. We educate our students to give them the tools they need to understand and engage with the world around them. We at MEDIAGIRLS specialize in social media literacy, but that can only take students so far if they lack historical and social awareness. Conservative lawmakers know that they are facing a generation of politically active, highly opinionated young people, and they see an opportunity to derail it before it challenges their power, trying to make sure that their prejudices and preferences repeat themselves in the next generation. 

Young people are not the passive vessels for facts and figures that these lawmakers want them to be. We at MEDIAGIRLS have watched with pride as girls+ across the country have taken action to challenge classroom censorship. From Joslyn Diffenbaugh starting the Banned Books Club in her middle school to hundreds of students mobilizing on Instagram and TikTok to restore banned books and movies to their libraries and schools, the best way to fight back is to keep reading. 

Visit your local library, and become aware of the perspectives of as many different people as possible. Some may challenge or unsettle you; that’s a good thing. Many of the same tenets MEDIAGIRLS teaches about social media literacy apply to critical engagement with traditional media too. It generates questions such as: who wrote this? How are they using this book to get their ideas across? What can we learn about the world that author, book, reader, and all are a part of from the reading experience? Whether it be a TikTok trend or a Newbery-winning novel, the same ideas of critical media theory apply. This is how we expand our minds and give the next generation the tools they need to change the world.

Katherine Lynch is a student at Emmanuel College in Boston, Mass. She studies Communications and Media with a minor in Marketing. She loves to read, write, and learn about the world, passions she is eager to share with the MEDIAGIRLS community.

Featured Image Courtesy of Christin Hume on Unsplash

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