Goodbye to Literary Classics?

As a child and through my adolescent years I was widely read and even voracious in my appetite for books of all types including fiction, history, biographies, and more. I grew to love the classics, especially the works of Verne, Dickens, and Heinlein. American history became a favorite subject. My personal library still has many of these topics represented, with scores of titles.

Sadly, there is a movement today to ban high-quality, well-written classics in some of our public schools. Recently, the Burbank (California) Unified School District placed five youth classics on a list of banned titles:

To Kill a Mockingbird (Pulitzer Prize winner in 1960)
Of Mice and Men
Tom Sawyer
The Cay
Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry (Newbery Award winner in 1977)

I read and studied three of these books while in junior high and each one provided a lasting memory and a deep impression. In To Kill a Mockingbird, I saw injustice and what it means to defend the helpless. I found Of Mice and Men to be deeply and utterly disturbing in its scenes of brutality, but I was able to see the value of empathy. Tom Sawyer was pure entertainment and the book was so engrossing that I could almost see myself in the story.

I am unfamiliar with The Cay and Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, but a quick online check revealed the plot-lines and brief character studies. Racism is a dominant theme in all five books, but for the most part, the characters are able to work through the issue, learning lessons that shape their lives for good.

Why is it that we cannot use books such as these to build helpful bridges of understanding? Certainly there are uncomfortable themes and unpleasant words in these books (like the n word), and there are scenes of brutality that startle us in our realization that people can be utterly and horribly inhuman to their fellow human beings.

However, the careful reading and study of controversial books has the potential to provide deep and lasting lessons for young people (and adults). If we exercise a bit of critical thinking, we see that a well-written book – especially a classic – has a message to share, one that causes us to think, perhaps deeply. Only then are we able to ask ourselves, what should I change and how should I live?

Some will say that these works, though largely fictional, are a reflection of our culture. As such, they must be hidden away, never read, never studied, and never to be used as tools for learning. This is narrow-minded and very short-sighted. We miss a valuable opportunity with such thinking.

It is much too easy to ban and hide these books. Instead, why not do that which is more challenging, stimulating, and therefore beneficial? Schools should take the time to teach and discuss the issues raised within the pages. After all, what does it say about American society if we run away and hide from everything that makes us feel uncomfortable?

© Jeffery J. Michaels / Plain English Publications 2020
(Quotations allowed with attribution to this blog)