Writing of Anne Frank on display.

Writing of Anne Frank on display. Credit: AP/Bas Czerwinski

Stories of book bans and censures in schools keep multiplying. In just the past few days, there have been reports of a teacher in South Carolina being reprimanded for teaching a book by the distinguished Black writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, as well as a substitute teacher in Texas being fired for reading to an eighth grade class a passage from the diary of Holocaust victim Anne Frank which contained the adolescent’s musings on sex and anatomy.

In both cases, students or parents complained. For some, this adds to growing evidence of a wave of conservative “cancel culture” targeting materials on uncomfortable subjects such as racism and sexuality. But maybe it's more complicated than that.

It seems fairly clear that in both South Carolina and Texas, there was an egregious overreaction by school authorities. In Texas, the text, written by a child about the same age as the students to whom it was read, is less sexual than naive as Frank wonders about certain physical aspects of sexual intercourse. It’s certainly not inappropriate for eighth-graders to read. The book that was used, a graphic adaptation of the diary, had been included on a list of reading materials sent to parents at the start of the school year. Reading it aloud in class or having students read it aloud was probably not a good idea; some kids may have felt intensely embarrassed. But the situation could have been resolved with a simple apology.

The situation in South Carolina is a bit more complex. The assigned reading, from Coates’ acclaimed but controversial 2015 book “Between the World and Me,” is a passionate, bitter and, many say, skewed look at race and racism in America. One complaining student talked about being made to feel ashamed to be white. This could run afoul of current South Carolina law, which prohibits teaching that inculcates racial guilt. Another felt that the teacher, Mary Wood, was subtly engaging in indoctrination.

In the controversy that ensued, local Republicans wanted Wood fired for “race-shaming against white people.” Meanwhile, her defenders said she presented the text as a topic for discussion without forcing any opinions on anyone.

The calls for retaliation are disturbing. But Wood’s decision to present Coates’ text to her all-white class for a discussion of what it means to be Black in America does raise genuine concerns. Tellingly, her choice of a “balancing conservative voice” was former President Donald Trump, whom even his fans probably wouldn’t characterize as a serious thinker. There are many thoughtful criticisms of Coates, some of them by Black authors, that could have genuinely stimulated dialogue. The answer was not to censure or to exclude Coates’ text; it was to require a better lesson plan.

It's easy to decry conservative parents as authoritarians anxious to shield their kids from tough discussions of race or from sexual references. Some are. But others have concerns that even some liberals agree are valid — whether it’s about one-sided classroom instruction on divisive issues or inappropriate exposure to sexual material. A few days ago, the progressive web magazine Slate published a fascinating piece by a New Jersey writer, Aymann Ismail, who wrote that he dismissed worries about such exposure as hysteria until he saw one frequently challenged book — the sex-education textbook “It’s Perfectly Normal,” recommended for kids 10 and up — and was shocked by the blunt and graphic images it featured.

No one likes book banners. But when it comes to school readings, balance and age-appropriateness are legitimate goals. Both sides in this culture war deserve to be heard.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a writer for The Bulwark, are her own.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a writer for The Bulwark, are her own.


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