Thursday, August 19, 2010


I started my Pre-AP classes today with a quote from chapter II of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty.

But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

Dissent is such an important component of a free society. The majority is not always right, even though it believes it is because it's the majority, and majority rules. Sometimes, the majority has a nasty habit of painting dissenters as wrong-headed, frightening, immoral, even evil.

Cool discussion starter, huh?

I love teaching Fahrenheit 451. This is the 12th time I've started the school year with Bradbury's classic. The book never stops being relevant because the day-to-day living out of our constitutional ideals never stops being a struggle. Watch the news. You'll see that struggle playing out within the first five minutes.

In his "Coda" to Fahrenheit, Bradbury said, "There is more than one way to burn a book, and the world is full of people running around with lit matches."

I've posted this link before, but it bears repeating. The ALA keeps data on all formal challenges to public libraries, school libraries, and classrooms. This is their most challenged/banned list for the last decade. They also sort the data by year and by author, or you can see which classics are the most challenged/banned. For the most recent years, they also post the reasons why a particular book was challenged.

I gave the lists for the last two years and for the decade to my students. They were flabbergasted that books like the Junie B. Jones children's series are on the list. That particular series is beloved by a lot of kids because they discovered their love of reading with Junie. Goosebumps and Captain Underpants are on the list too.

Some of my more naive students were surprised to find the Harry Potter series at the top of the decade list. I explained that Harry Potter is challenged because of religious viewpoint. One confused student said, "But it's about how love is the most powerful force in the universe."

Out of the mouths of babes...

Interestingly, J.K. Rowling falls off the author list after 2003. I interpret this to mean that most of the challenges came early in the decade and that people have cooled down a little over Harry and the gang. One can only hope.

I asked students to tally the number of books they had read on the banned lists. The competition became fierce as students tried to add books to their tally they had started, but not finished. Or they wanted to count every Junie B. Jones they had ever read separately. One student had legitimately read 35 books on the combined lists. I've only read 44, so I was impressed. I'm challenging them to add to their tally before their freshman year is over, and we're going to count again at the end.

My favorite moment came when one young man asked me with wide eyes, "What happens if you read a banned book?"

I responded solemnly, "You burst into flames."

The poor kid doesn't know me yet, and "Oh my teacher is crazy" crossed his face. Then, he realized I must be joking and laughed. I did have to explain that he would not be committing a crime if he read a banned book. I went further and said I believed the people who had the books removed from a library had committed a crime against every patron of that library.

I'm subversive like that.

But I'm not the only one. Mills said that suppressing ideas robs all of humanity of the opportunity to pursue the truth. President Eisenhower said, "Freedom cannot be censored into existence."

If we can't respect our neighbor's dissenting idea, then we have to find a way to respect his right to have a dissenting idea without limiting access to it. Censorship is a society killer.

You don't have to take my word for it. Read Fahrenheit 451.

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