The Observer-Reporter building in Washington

When an old year departs and a new one arrives, it’s customary to take stock of trends, fads and fashions and forecast what will rise and what will fall in the months ahead.

Here’s one trend that we can only hope will peter out in 2022 – the rage in many communities to ban books in school libraries. New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg called it an “aggressive new censoriousness.”

Last month, a state senator in Oklahoma introduced a piece of legislation that would allow any parent to have a book removed from a school library, and if a school does not comply, the parent could receive $10,000 per day. Though the measure is aimed at books that deal with sexuality and gender identity, it’s easy to imagine how the fever to ban books could escalate and strip school libraries of all but the most anodyne titles.

You don’t like Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” the 115-year-old novel about the horrors of the Chicago meat-packing industry? Well, I don’t like “The Fountainhead,” Ayn Rand’s paean to rugged, stubborn individualism.

Turning school libraries into battlefields in the seemingly never-ending American culture war goes hand-in-hand with the arguments that have broken out at school board meetings in recent months about mask mandates, vaccinations and how issues surrounding race, social justice and sexuality should be taught. Some of the books these modern-day inquisitors would like to root out include classics like “Beloved” and “1984,” but they have also specifically targeted books having to do with race or LGBTQ issues; or, in the words of a Texas lawmaker, any book that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.”

Like the hysteria over critical race theory, this is less to do with banning books than it is about narrowing the parameters of what can be taught in public schools. If a teacher is worried that discussing the United States’ history of discrimination will somehow fall under the “critical race theory” banner, then it might be better not to acknowledge the reality of how slavery and decades of Jim Crow laws threatened Black Americans and limited their opportunities. Or, in the case of LGBTQ issues, it might be best just to set all that aside and let it only be whispered about. Even if no books are removed from library shelves, it has a chilling effect – teachers, librarians and administrators might decide it’s wise to avoid some headaches and keep things as uncontroversial as possible.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, who directs the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, recently noted that while parents have the right to control what their children read, they shouldn’t be in the business of deciding what other children read.

“Our belief is rooted firmly in the First Amendment,” she wrote. “Young people have First Amendment rights – not only the right to speak but the right to access and use the resources of the school or public library, free from any censorship that arises from a disapproval of a book’s content or views.”

If we want our children to thrive, we should want to expand their horizons, not limit them.

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