A Good Word for Book Banning… Sort Of


This is Banned Books Week—which in principle celebrates some vital, wonderful liberal principles: Freedom to read, openness to ideas, all that good stuff. But a couple things about the American Liberary Association's Banned Books Week FAQ gave me pause.

First, there's their definition of "challenged" books—with the pretty clear implication in context that a "challenge" is always a bad, anti-freedomy sort of thing. But the category seems to cover a whole lot of ground, from someone demanding that a book be pulled from the shelves of a town's public or school library, to parents complaining to a teacher that their child's a bit young yet to be assigned Book X. The first I'd hope is pretty much always unsuccessful. The latter, eh, I don't know—if we don't think teachers (or administrators) are infallible, it's surely not impossible that, every now and again, a book might be assigned a group of kids, most of whose parents would consider them too young for it. Is it so outrageous for a parent to disagree with a curricular choice that even writing a letter to raise an issue and request reconsideration counts, by default, as an attempt at "suppression"? (Insert requisite if-only-we-had-vouchers line here.)

If the distinction between kinds of challenges is important, that probably goes double for distinctions between rationales for challenges. The ALA's maintains a list of most challenged books from last year—a kind of honor roll, again with the pretty clear implication that they're all equally targets of ignorant attempts at censorship. Number three on the list is Michael Bellesiles' Arming America. Yes, that's the error riddled book whose author resigned in disgrace after a scholarly panel found it to be either impossibly sloppy or outright fraudulent, whose publisher dropped it, which had its prestigous Bancroft Prize rescinded. Joyce Lee Malcolm skewered the book in this 2001 review for Reason, and followed up on the controversy—and the book's legion errors and fabrications—in a 2003 Reason piece. The most charitable thing to say about this book is that there seems to be pretty broad consensus among historians that there are serious problems with the book. A less charitable, but probably more accurate thing to say is: The book is a patchwork of lies. If I had a kid in high school who was assigned this book—at least outside a creative fiction class—I'd surely object as well. Not because I disagree with its point of view, but because there seems to be broad agreement that it's just factually wrong on a whole slew of crucial points. Is "censorship" really what's at issue when someone complains that their kid's history class is using a text now widely regarded as fraudulent?

Now, looking down the list, I don't think schools and teachers should cave to objections from a few parents in most cases—though, again, it'd sure be nice if parents had more options for putting their kids in another school when they had such serious problems with the curriculum. But the kind of undiscriminating approach the ALA seems to take—every "challenge" to every book in every context for any reason is equally bad—stinks more of an attempt to preserve a professional prerogative than a genuine concern with the evils of censorship.