KELSEY REED: Hello, welcome to Concurrently: The News Coach Podcast from WORLD Radio and God’s WORLD News. We’re here to come alongside you as you disciple kids and students through culture and current events. I’m Kelsey Reed. I’m here with Jonathan Boes.
JONATHAN BOES: Hello!
KELSEY: Together, we want to model conversation and apply tools you can use at home or in the classroom. We would love for you to send in your questions for us to address in future episodes. Please send them to email@example.com.
JONATHAN: So today we’re taking a break from listener questions to talk about something we’ve been seeing in the news. It’s something you’ve probably seen too. And if you have kids who attend a public school, this might be a topic that hits close to home. Today, we’re talking about banned and challenged books. We see this idea pop up all over the place. Sometimes it’s publishers themselves making edits to books from their authors. We saw this recently. UK editions of children’s books by Roald Dahl had been edited to take out some potentially offensive words. We see these challenges come in public libraries—people want to see books removed from the public library.
But I think most prominently what we see in the news all the time, and where it most obviously intersects with the education of kids and teens, is the question of books banned from school libraries and classroom curriculums. Just this morning, I Googled this. I looked at the first page of Google News results. Immediately, I see stories from Florida, Pittsburgh, Michigan, Kentucky, Indiana. This is just in the last two weeks. Parents and politicians challenging books that are used in their children’s schools.
So let’s start with some of those basic journalistic questions. Kelsey, you brought these out on one of the News Coach blogs, that we can use these questions to interrogate any news story—not just as journalists, but as readers. So who is wanting to ban these books? What is being banned? Where do we see this happening? And at the heart of it, why?
KELSEY: So just reiterating those questions, because they are so useful for drawing out our observations of any story. It’s the who, what, when, where, how, and why of a story. So starting with the who, we definitely get a chance to see a little bit more of the personality behind a narrative, or even understand more of maybe even an agenda behind something. So who wants to ban certain books? This really is directly tied into the what of the books that are being banned. So that who, it differs depending on what the subject area is, and we’re noticing that very clearly.
JONATHAN: We see a very wide range of books being challenged in the classroom. Maybe we can, just for the purpose of this discussion here, narrow the where to the classroom or the school library. The American Library Association keeps lists by year of the top 10 banned or challenged books in schools. The top of the 2021 list is a book called Gender Queer, which was being challenged because of its LGBTQ content. But on the 2020 list, you also see books like To Kill a Mockingbird, and Of Mice and Men, classic works of literature being challenged because of their portrayal of racism or violence. So there’s a broad range of the what in question.
KELSEY: And even the when. It’s interesting to think about the what in terms of the when. Depending on what year it was, certain books floated more to the top of the list. There are, of course, themes that are reiterative through the years, we see content that is banned or censored or challenged in schools, those are typical. And they show up time and again. But it is interesting: You can notice a shift even depending on what year. 2020 is a little different than 2014. So who would want to challenge these certain books, particularly like To Kill a Mockingbird? Who is that that would want to challenge a book like that? And we see that the who is very different for challenging To Kill a Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men versus Gender Queer, that these entities behind that banning or that effort to ban or challenge a book—these are very different entities.
JONATHAN: But also, when we’re talking about the who, in this case of the school, the classroom, whatever political or ideological camp they fall into, it’s often parents we’re talking about: parents who are looking at the stuff their kids are engaging with in school, maybe even some of the homework they’re bringing back from class, and saying, “Okay, what’s going on in my child’s curriculum?” Or “What has my child been able to access through the school library, that ostensibly should be a safe place for my child to research and learn?”
KELSEY: That brings up the fact that there are some other wheres we might want to make mention of, even though our focus is on the public school. There are places, of course, where you’re going to get access to a much broader array of material, like the public library.
JONATHAN: What we hear about in the news, most of the time, again, is the classroom. But we saw in the data from 2019, that 66% of banned or challenged books were being challenged in public library settings. And it was something more like 19% being challenged in school libraries, and a slightly smaller percentage of that just in schools in general.
KELSEY: So even though the percentage is greater in the public libraries, the stuff that’s making the news is definitely that which is related to the school. So we talked about the why of that. Why, in this situation, are we hearing about the smaller percentage? We noticed that the school is an entity that has been viewed as a shepherd, an entity that knows what is developmentally sound, or claims to know what is developmentally sound, according to the different age levels in front of them. An elementary school is going to, or has in the past, discerned that sexual content is not a developmentally appropriate subject area for elementary schoolers. So the uproar happens when there’s a shift, and traditional expressions of those developmentally sound practices are suddenly again shifted, or we are catching hold of practices that are going against our expectation of the norm, or expected norm.
JONATHAN: So in some of the discussions we were having off-air, there was an illustration you brought in that really helped me see why this space of the schools feel so contentious, as opposed to broader or more narrow areas of censorship.
KELSEY: Yes, I put it in circles, because it helps me to understand.
JONATHAN: Concentric circles.
KELSEY: Yes, that’s right, because the center portion is the smallest unit in a much broader context. So our circles are these: There’s a nation in which we exist. For us, that’s a democratic type nation, a republic.
JONATHAN: And that’s the broadest circle. On that democratic nation scale, in our Western culture, it’s generally thought that it’s a bad idea for an entire nation to censor a book. We value free speech, free thought, in a democratic society.
KELSEY: And we’ll go on to explain what this value is, and where it stems from, and what it looks like in operation. But for right now, just picture with us the circles, that the outermost circle is the nation, and then those circles get smaller as they go in towards the very core, or basic unit. And I’m going to name that first, by comparison to the nation, because of a great observation you made, that the values of the core unit of the family are often replicated at the general level, that there is a shared value for the freedom to be able to operate with one’s own worldview and values, and that an entire nation has to operate with the value of allowing the many different value systems to be in play, and for them to even at times, connect with or collaborate with one another. I’ll define that again in a minute.
JONATHAN: People tend to agree that censorship is bad at the national level. But when you get down to the smallest central circle of the family, I would say people tend to agree that it’s appropriate in a family context for parents to “censor” content, or create boundaries. Most people would agree that it is the prerogative of the mother or father to say, “You’re not old enough for this book yet,” or “While you’re under my roof, we are not going to watch this movie; we’re not going to engage with this text.” So there’s almost, at the biggest and smallest level, a reversal of value. We don’t want the nation telling us, “This book is not allowed within the bounds of this country.” But we do sense the right of the parent to say, “There are certain things my child is not yet ready to be exposed to.”
KELSEY: So while we’re on that description of these levels, I want us to be really careful to recognize the difference between “nation” or “general populace” and “state,” so we’re not conflating those two things in that larger circle, remembering that the general populace wants to operate with the same freedom. It is a consensus of a general populace to operate with freedom: freedom of speech, freedom of religion. This is a right to educate our children the way we see fit, that is embedded in those general expectations within our nation, that allow for those individualized freedoms, the individual exercise.
JONATHAN: So that vision of the value of a pluralistic society that allows for different points of view—that is why a Western culture like ours is so opposed to national-level banning of books. And it’s why we see countries that don’t value this pluralistic view wanting to ban books that they view as dangerous, sometimes even banning the Bible. Of course, in Nazi Germany, they burned books en masse that were thought to contain dangerous thoughts. When people talk about books being banned, and they have this panic over banned books, I think that Nazi Germany image of books on a bonfire is often the red alert flashing in their minds. They see a nation going towards thought control. I think that fear is often in the background, when people panic about banned books.
KELSEY: And for a connection with where we explore some more of that, our episode on the state as idol really explores some more those ideas. And we’ll return to those things often, because they are very much at the crux of the culture wars we’re identifying in so many of our episodes.
JONATHAN: So to bring it back to the idea of books being banned in the context of public school, we have this outer circle of the state, this inner circle of the family. But really, the school lives somewhere in the middle, where we have something being facilitated by the state. And yet, it’s where we’re sending our kids. It’s where the family and the state are intersecting in a really intimate way. And so this is where we see a lot of conflict about banned books brewing.
We’ve talked about what sorts of books are being banned, where we see this happening, why public school is such a contentious battleground for this issue. But before we can get into what literature belongs in the classroom, I think we need to maybe start with the question of why do we study literature in the first place? At least to me, it seems like we can’t have a truly fruitful discussion about what books belong in the classroom before we agree on why books belong in the classroom.
KELSEY: A great place to start for me, I always like to look back to a scriptural precedent for this. I want it to inform my thinking, my action in this area. And right off the top of my head, the easiest go-to for me is the Apostle Paul. It is so amazing to me to think of how well-read this man was. He knew the ins and outs, of course of the Hebrew Bible, but he also knew the Greek poets well enough that, in Acts 17, when he was reasoning in the marketplace, and in the synagogue, we see that he was quoting the poets to the people who came to interrogate him in the marketplace about this new teaching that he was bringing to them. He was able to build a bridge to them, because of knowing those poets, and show how in their seeking after the way that humanity had been made, and the relationship between man and the gods or the “unknown god,” he was able to use their poetry in a way to facilitate their knowledge of the gospel. So why would we learn literature? Or why would we read extensively? Right there, we learn that as believers, we have a big why for that, a big, wonderful answer to that relates to the Father’s heart for the nations, that the gospel would go outwards.
JONATHAN: And I don’t think it’s an accident that a lot of the Bible, the entirety of the Bible, is in the form of literature, even in specific literary genres of history and poetry. There’s a professor of literature, Dr. Leland Ryken. You might recognize his name. He was actually the literary stylist on the English Standard Version of the Bible. He has a quote about literature: “The news tells us what happened. Literature tells us what happens.”
Good literature paints an accurate picture of the world around us, the way people live and think. It shows us our reality in ways we sometimes can’t perceive for ourselves, that lets us see through the eyes of other people. And through that—another quote from Ryken—literature “alerts us to the needs and problems of the people around us.”
KELSEY: Moving even deeper into the heart, moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that when we read extensively, when we read fiction, it informs our empathy. It informs our moral imagination. And it allows us to see the other as human. In Christian terms, we would say we see the other not just as an object, or someone who is not human, but as a full image-bearer. And so, when we read extensively, it coaches our empathy, and even our compassion, that we might better engage in lovingkindness to neighbor.
JONATHAN: And one last thing about the purpose of literature, especially when we’re talking about education. These great works of literature from the past teach us something about the culture they helped create. So much literature—the Greek myths, Shakespeare, in America books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin—these things actually shaped the culture we live in. And to better understand the world we inhabit, it helps to have read these books that helped create that world.
KELSEY: I’m reminded of the quote that “those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.” Literature is very much the same way. What was created at different parts of history, our historical context, that gives us so much insight into the arc of humanity. Like you said, I’m just reiterating that, because it is so very important to see the tie in to the things that we create, the culture we create gives us insight into our history, and our human process.
JONATHAN: So we see a good purpose for literature in education. Books belong in the classroom. And to me, it seems that literature will almost always bring some level of challenge. And at the heart of this question of banned books, when I think about it for myself, there is a question right at the center of discerning the difference between appropriate challenge in a book versus inappropriate challenge, or even propaganda, in a book. I guess the first question I have is: Challenge—what is the appropriate sort of challenge in a book our kids might encounter in the classroom?
KELSEY: That’s a great question, and it deserves a nuanced answer, as do most of the things that we cover here. Challenge is going to be unique to developmental stage, to prior knowledge. We might think that something is going to be super challenging to a five-year-old that is nothing for a 15-year-old. So in terms of the nature of challenge, or the content, whether or not it is challenging to the child in front of us—as always, it’s very important that we know, what does this child experience? How do they experience the world? What do they already know? This informs us in terms of understanding the level of challenge of the content. And parent, it is definitely your primary job to discern that for your child, your student.
Let’s go at it from an educational angle just a little further. We cannot learn without challenge. But if the challenge is too great, we actually do something that’s called falling into miseducation. The struggle is too much for us to grow from it. It is for the parent to mitigate that challenge and to provide the tools or the structures needed, the support that is intended to come alongside this learner, and give them what they need for this experience to be profitable to them, to be fostering of growth, rather than sending them into what is also known as disequilibration—that they’re so out of sorts they cannot learn anything from it. That’s the best on-the-fly definition that I can give for disequilibrium. They’re completely out of sorts.
JONATHAN: Because again, what we said about the purpose of literature, it’s not just fun reading time to escape into fantasy land. It’s actually teaching us something important about the world. And that world is fallen. And we see difficult stuff in the great works of literature, whether it’s ancient myths—you’re dealing with the Odyssey, the Iliad—or you’re dealing with the works of Shakespeare. Even in the true stories we find recorded in the literary histories of the Bible, there’s going to be violence, sexual content, and portrayals of racism. All the things we see people banning books for appear in some level in so many of the great works of literature. But like you’re saying, it’s that question of the appropriate level of challenge, the appropriate developmental level, the appropriate way of introducing it. Because, you know—just because the world is fallen doesn’t justify us showing that full picture of fallenness to an unsuspecting child without the proper support, especially because again, we’ll use the word disequilibrium. There’s this challenging line of knowing the value of literature is going to include challenge, but finding that appropriate level of challenge, and knowing where that level is too much.
KELSEY: The alternative is that we take away all challenge. We take away all chance for a child to actually learn and grow. If we scrub literature of those things that are broken, if we deny sin—which denies a huge portion of the redemptive narrative, and we talk about redemptive narrative a lot. It’s important for us to bring it back in as a paradigm for us to think about here, that good literature acknowledges brokenness, as you’ve said. If we try to iron out or scrub out the brokenness from stories, we’re taking out not only the challenge, we’re taking out a piece of our reality, and we are not coaching our children to understand that reality well.
So then we’re going back to those difficult questions, sometimes those interrogative questions. We’re asking: Who is this child in front of us? What can they handle? When do they need to have the more challenging material? How am I going to come alongside them or present it to them? And where are they actually learning these things?
And so I want to actually camp out in the where. Even if your child is in the public school, and is beginning to receive material that you wouldn’t want them to receive necessarily—not at your hands, or maybe not at that level—this is the opportunity for you to make the where of learning your home. You have the opportunity to welcome them into conversation about those things they’re experiencing, and to let them ask you questions, and to ask them how they are experiencing those thoughts, to cultivate that critical thinking so that they can understand when they’re receiving something that is good literature or propaganda.
JONATHAN: Part of the history of literature—yes, books that portray the brokenness of the world. Some of those books call that brokenness “good.” Even in the history of really well-written things that shaped our culture, you’re going to find works, like things by the ancient Greeks, that celebrate violence or pride, right? And so engaging critically, even with works of literature that not only paint the brokenness, but misidentify it as something to be celebrated.
KELSEY: The Bible talks about when we call good evil and evil good. That is just doing violence against the Lord’s created order. It’s doing violence against Truth. I think here, it’s worthy for us to identify that episode, with Collin Garbarino and Juliana Chan Erikson. We were talking about informing our thinking by great reading, reading classical pieces of literature, reading, steeping ourselves in scripture, so that worldview, that is calling good good and evil evil, that’s calling that which the Lord delights in—we’re naming those things as delightful. And we’re naming the brokenness and even grieving over it with our children. So we’re shaping a worldview, always with what they read, whether we are talking about how we’d push back against this, or whether we’re saying, “Yes, this aligns with our Christian worldview of what is good, true, and beautiful.”
JONATHAN: So we’re talking about the idea that there is a level of challenge, even a level of difficult content, that it might be appropriate for our children to engage with at the right level, to begin to struggle with the brokenness of the world, the things that shaped our culture, and the things that are going on in our culture today. And I think sometimes when we see this clamor about banned books, in some instances, the things parents are panicking over are actually these levels of challenge that might be useful, that might be worth facing instead of just eliminating from the curriculum.
But—what about the flip side? Is there a point, and when is there a point, where it’s time to say, okay, this book simply doesn’t belong in my child’s classroom?
KELSEY: I think there is a point, and I think that it behooves parents to be gently engaged in the educational process in whatever institution they have put their child. Because at some point, a parent is going to need to discerningly engage and say, “This does not belong here for my child. This doesn’t belong here for any child.”
Here are the criteria that I would use. When it begins to point to capital T Truth as no longer true, and when it tries to become that new way of thinking about life—when it says that it is the way of thinking instead of a way of thinking, and tries to replace all other ways of thinking, in whatever book is being taught, or whatever ideology is being taught in the classroom—that’s when it becomes a real danger to your child, because it is propagandizing this idea towards your child, cultivating their thought that this is the way of thinking. When we’re talking about that, the way that you need to think about sex and gender is coming from this specific ideology, “Gender is fluid.” When you make that absolute statement, you are making a statement that comes from a paradigm. And when you are not able to say, “Some people think that gender is fluid and other people are convicted that is not the case, according to their belief system”—that’s when it crosses over into territory that is very dangerous, again, to a democratic society in which multiple different philosophies, religions, worldviews are meant to be held and work in collaboration, in order to have this beautiful society where we can think and live and learn.
JONATHAN: And of course, what’s difficult—and this gets into a huge other subject that we can’t fully explore in this episode, but rest assured this will come up again—you know, most of the world outside the church is beginning to believe that the statement “people are gender fluid, or gender can be chosen”—that is being viewed as a neutral statement. There’s no sense that this is exclusive to other belief systems. And so people who would say they value that pluralistic society don’t necessarily see the contradiction in those things.
KELSEY: So we’ve crossed a little bit over into talking about the content that is supported by the books we might challenge, and that there might be an agenda in the classroom that is communicated through this material or curriculum, that a wise parent might challenge. And we’re trying to talk about the criteria by which you might gently challenge a book. Some of the other questions that come into play, that help you to discern whether a book has crossed over into teaching a new paradigm as the way by which we think about the world: What does it say about who is in authority? What does it say about what the problem of man is, and how to solve it? And are they presenting the answers to these questions as the only way to answer these questions? Are they looking at it philosophically, interrogating these ideas and going, “Some people think this way,” and showing that it is something they’re living alongside of with another neighbor?
JONATHAN: And I think even, how is this book being used in the classroom? Because the class might engage with a book that is presenting a capital T Truth you disagree with, but maybe the class is using that book in such a way as, “Here’s what this author thinks,” not necessarily saying “Kids: Think this.” That’s another important distinction to add.
KELSEY: I think it’s also vital to recognize that there are impressionable ages and stages. Young children, if they are exposed to material that is graphic, pornographic, teaching something as normal, as in normalizing something—that’s a major red flag. And it’s something that, again, is worthy of stepping up and having a conversation with your teacher, with the school board, with a principal. “This material is shaping my child’s thinking in ways that I am not interested in my child’s thought being shaped.”
JONATHAN: Right there, you have touched on the way we as parents can engage with the authorities in the schools about these issues. And I think that’s a great place to maybe begin to wrap up our thoughts, because that is another really important aspect of this.
I’ll speak a little bit to my personal experience of living in some small towns, where I’ve known teachers who have witnessed these school board meetings of Christian parents coming with fear and anger, because of things—not even things they were seeing in their own classroom as much as things they were seeing on the news, happening in the nation. And these parents had a good intention of wanting to protect their kids, but in the way they engaged with fear and anger at school board meetings, they actually turned the church into a stench in the community—a stench of fear and anger and paranoia, and a sense of, honestly, disrespect to the teachers, some of whom were Christians like this friend of mine, who was witnessing this and just feeling so discouraged as a teacher at the level of distrust she was receiving from Christian parents in the community.
And so even when we sense a problem in our curriculum, how can we engage that problem not from a place of panic or fear or anger, but from a place of healthy concern, a constructive place?
KELSEY: I think that’s a question that we need to be asking ourselves consistently. I can make forays into some answers, but probably the strength is actually in the question itself. Because there is a presumption we see in scripture, that we are intended to be that aroma of Christ, that we are not the ones that cause offense, but that the gospel itself, which challenges the idols of our hearts, which challenges our sin and our comforts, the things that we want to cling to more than Christ, who says, “You must not cling to your sin, it is death. I am life.” The gospel is offensive to those who are more committed to serving an idol. We don’t have to offend. We can live out what it looks like to have been saved from our own sin. And that is the aroma of life for those who are seeking life, while it can be the stench of death to those who are committed to living their own way. We don’t have to war with others in order to be that dividing line, that sharp double-edged sword that divides soul from body and marrow from bone.
So how do we engage? We engage for the glory of the Lord, who tells us to go to make disciples, to share the good news with those who are perishing. And there are many in the public schools, there are many in the private schools, there are many in your neighbor’s home that are perishing without the good news of the one who came to seek and save the lost. We are intended to be agents of His kingdom in that way. So if your children are in the schools, what does it look like to be Christ to them, as one who goes and pursues, and who names goodness as goodness, brokenness as brokenness, evil as evil, and who rejoices in the truth, and names and affirms those things that they might even see that are true? The challenge, parent, is to show up and to make relationship.
JONATHAN: So as always, we want to end by offering some questions you can use to begin engaging this topic with your kids or teens.
KELSEY: These questions are mostly aimed at those older children, who have had their thinking informed by many, many things already—you know, so much literature, maybe exposure to philosophy. So these are really teen and young adult oriented questions today. To the teen in your life, you might ask:
For what reasons, would an entity seek to ban or censor books or other published materials? What makes their reasoning either good or faulty? In other words, what can we affirm about their thinking? What can we challenge about their thinking?
Is there any good reason for banning or censoring material? Explain your thinking.
What are the benefits of reading broadly? What are the benefits of a society that allows for plurality of thought?
I’m sure that once you get down the road with these questions, you’ll find that many other great conversations come up.
JONATHAN: So today we’ve covered a complex topic, and it’s one we will probably return to in the future. We know it’s a topic where emotions can run high.
It would be great if we could just go down a list and tell you, “This book should be in the classroom, this book shouldn’t be in the classroom.”
But what we’re saying is—it’s not just about what books are being read, it’s about how those books are being used, and when are they being introduced? There’s a big difference between a teacher reading Marx in the classroom to convey the effect those ideas had on history, versus a teacher reading Marx in the classroom and telling kids that Marxism is good—even though both teachers might teach from the exact same text.
Of course, there will be times that content is so vulgar it’s simply not appropriate for children, no matter how it’s being taught—and that’s another place for discernment.
But it’s okay for this to be complex. It’s okay for this process to require work. There’s really no “easy button” for educating our kids. It takes engagement.
KELSEY: We hope that you will explore with curiosity, with a posture of learning alongside of your teens who are learning. We’re learning with you. And we’re excited to be able to be involved in this process.
Parent, teacher, mentor of children, you are positioned uniquely to have the greatest impact on the kids and teens in your life. You are the ones who know them. who can discern what is going to be challenging, what is going to cultivate growth in their life. And we want to remind you: He has equipped you for that work.
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