A beloved literary classic is being banned in a Mississippi school district based on claims of offensive and ‘uncomfortable' language.
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has been revered as a poignant examination of race relations in our country and yes, it is uncomfortable. But this is not the type of discomfort that we should shy away from. On the contrary, we as a society need to embrace what makes us uncomfortable so that we may work together towards ameliorating those situations. Solutions are not found by shutting our ears to the truth.
Literature is an examination of the human condition. Great literary works are written with the intention to challenge the way we think, to challenge the truths that we have used to define ourselves, and be driven to break free from the prison house of the self.
The purpose of literature in education is twofold: to teach the next generation how to think analytically and to expose them to human history. An examination of formerly banned American classics will help explain the need to keep these texts in our classrooms, libraries, and bookstores.
In the 19th century, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850) caused moral outrage with its depiction of the effects of adultery in puritan society. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884) illuminated race relations in southern antebellum Mississippi and is told in vernacular English. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895) tells the story of a young private that fled from the battlefields during the Civil War.
In the 20th century, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925) exposed the boozy lives of East Hampton socialites and the perils of impossible love. The Grapes of Wrath (1939) by John Steinbeck told the heartbreaking tale of the Joad family during the Dust Bowl. Allen Ginsberg's Howl (1955) frankly addressed sexuality, particularly homosexuality, provoking an obscenity trial.
The aforementioned banned books, an abridged list, were taken off shelves at some point in history due to obscene language or uncomfortable narratives. And it is true; the language is profane and the narratives are unsettling. But it is not reason enough to censor a text for truthfully revealing something about the human condition or our history as a nation.
These are the texts we should be exposing the next generation to so that they serve a didactic purpose. Each of these great texts teaches us something about humanity and human psychology, whether it be the impossible choices a soldier faces or the emptiness of a life spent striving for material gains.
Our personal aversion to the message of a literary work or the writer should not dictate censorship. I admit that I did not like or agree with every book I read as a student or as an educator, but I never thought that it should not be available for others to read. One of my best memories of undergraduate studies is reading The Grapes of Wrath over breakfast in the dining hall. I remember marveling in admiration at the family's determination to survive the challenges they faced.
This discussion is not just about To Kill a Mockingbird, but the state of free speech as a whole. We need to ask ourselves, is it right to forbid something just because we do not agree with it or we find it unsettling? The First Amendment answers with a definitive "no."
By banning texts, not only are we undermining our right to free speech, but we are also robbing the next generation of the opportunity to engage with great works of literature that could change the course of their lives. Reading Steinbeck changed the way I perceived faith, commitment, and determination in the face of adversity.
Of course, not every book is bound to yield the same effect for every individual; however, we ought not to eliminate the possibility.
Pooja Bachani is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. She is Director of Communications at Young Americans for Liberty, a non-profit organization based in Arlington, Va., with more than 900 college chapters across the country.
If you would like to write an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, please read our guidelines on submissions here.