Back in 380 BCE, Plato gave us the Allegory of the Cave, in which he discusses the effect of education, or lack thereof, on our nature. A better parallel could not be drawn regarding the impulse to burn and ban books than that of Socrates, Plato’s mentor, who was sentenced to die for ‘tainting’ the youth with education. In the Allegory of the Cave, Socrates illustrates the benefits of an illuminated mind through the parallel of a cave. In the cave there are men, bound with their eyes fixed upon the dark side of the wall. All they see are shadows cast from objects passed in front of a fire that is behind them. Through education, the men are freed from the prison of the cage, and able to see real objects for themselves.
This sentiment pertains to today’s discussion: the banning of books is a symptom of a greater problem. It has been a recurring theme throughout our country’s history. Within the realm of public education, books are constantly sought to be banned because the content within them is deemed to be “offensive” or “not fit for children.”
In a free society, where the precepts and history are rooted in academic enlightenment and the humanity embraced in the Renaissance, thinking that a book could be “evil” is a more subversive and destructive thought than any idea experimented with in paper and ink. On a fundamental level, anyone who sees bettering one’s self through education and enlightenment as a bad thing is up to something sheisty. The knee-jerk reactions of reactive, traditional people can be dressed up in many ways:
In ancient Greece, they were poisoning the youth.
In Nazi Germany, they were called a threat to the party, leftists or ‘Jewish.’
In the USSR, it was anything that was a perceived threat to the will of the party.
Oh, obscenity – just when I was beginning to think I had digressed, the parallel of Socrates becomes immediately relevant.
One can dress a turd up in many ways; but it is still a turd (if not a literal one, in this instance it is meant to be a shitty and lousy argument.) Obscenity is and has been a catch-all phrase for the fuddy-duddies of our modern life to describe anything and everything that isn’t in line with the status quo. Because, you know, the status quo is definitely not obscene.
But nonetheless, this catch-all still gets pulled out quite frequently. Books that involve subject matter that isn’t in line with the status quo are challenged or banned. To “challenge,” according to the American Library Association, is when a documented request is made to remove a piece of literature from a school library. To ban it is when the request is approved.
When people try to ban books from school libraries, it represents concerted effort on their part to prevent children from reading about and learning about characters, lifestyles, concepts and ideas that are not in line with the parent’s ideals. This is in contradiction of academic freedom, and not in the student’s or a democratic society’s best interest.
A silver lining to all of this is the fact that many books now considered hallmarks of American literature – To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye, for example – were previously challenged and banned books that now have their place solidly in most high school English classes. People might scream and stomp their feet, but society is (slowly) moving forward. So thanks, Socrates!
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