The Echo Chamber that Divides Us

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By Lindsey Clinton, Co-Editor-in-Chief

For decades, frustrated parents have taken their concerns and personal agendas to school boards or local politicians in protest of certain books that are read or available in their children’s schools. Many proclaim that schools introduce students to issues or topics at “too young of an age.” Others insist that it is “not the school’s place” to expose students to books centered around specific topics. But over the past two years, there has been increasing momentum in attempts to ban books found in schools across America. 

This current wave has spiked to 1,586 book bans and restrictions in 86 school districts spread across 26 states.

This current wave has spiked to 1,586 book bans and restrictions in 86 school districts spread across 26 states. Every book that is censored is done so due to the content found written or illustrated in it’s pages. The vast majority often handle subjects that have become quite taboo to many, including race, sexuality, or gender, just to name a few.  

“While these are sensitive topics, they are also vital to the human experience,” the librarian at New Paltz High School, Mrs. Arkans, says. “Rather than shielding students from these issues, we, as educators should be providing ways for teens to grapple with these big topics.”

Restricting information and discouraging freedom of thought undermines the importance of a key aspect of education: teaching and providing a space, as well as a community, for students to think for themselves. 

“Teens need to be able to go to their school library and check out a book on one of these topics to read and explore for themselves,” Arkans notes. 

Cover of Maus by Art Spielberg

In early January, a school board in McMinn County, Tennessee voted unanimously to ban the critically acclaimed graphic novel, Maus. This true story, by Art Spiegelman, speaks of the horrors of the Holocaust with the depiction of Jewish people as mice and Nazis as cats. Because of an issue of “nudity” and “graphic language”, the contents were deemed inappropriate and were then extracted from their eighth grade curriculum. 

Only one day before International Holocaust Day, Spiegelman learned of this ban. With a sense of perplexity in his voice, he stated, “It’s leaving me with my jaw open like, ‘What?’” Spiegelman’s take on the ban argued that these parents were not concerned with the mild curses, but rather the content and stories that were told.

“It shows people hanging. It shows them killing kids. Why does the education system promote this kind of stuff? It’s not wise or healthy… to be in the schools, ”McMinn County School Board Member Tony Allman says. “Educators and stuff, we don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff.” 

This novel is not meant to “enable” or “promote”. It is meant to teach so we don’t forget the impact history still has on us today. Maus holds extreme value  for many educators when addressing the Holocaust, due to its illustrated form of presenting the truths of violence, suffering, and the abuse of power.

“People need to become educated on these topics and should not be scrutinized for what they want to hear or learn” Kylie Ayala, Junior at New Paltz High School explains. “We should not be restricted when it comes to knowledge.” Removing books that are centered around inequality, inequity, or injustice, much like Spiegelman’s graphic novel, limits knowledge and representation for teens. 

“I totally understand if a parent is concerned and doesn’t want their own child to read a certain book,” Arkans remarks. “But to ask that other children in the school not be allowed to read the book removes free access to information from other people.”

Many students across America would not have access to, or ever think of reading, these novels if they were not offered in their school buildings. Being able to collaborate with others in an educational setting over issues that are found within these books aids in a deeper understanding of oneself as well as others. 

Arkans continues on to state, “Many of the banned or challenged books deal with topics that teens really need to think and learn about.” Books provide the starting point for some really important conversations.

Taking novels away from teachers, librarians, and our youth takes away powerful educational resources in our communities rather than providing protection from their content. More often than not, the reason for parents’ attempts to “protect” their children from the “dangers” found in these novels is to shield them from inclusivity and new knowledge.

Here at New Paltz High School, books have not been banned.

“Banning books is also about fear and power”

President of the New Paltz Board of Education, Bianca Tanis

“Banning books is also about fear and power,” President of the New Paltz Board of Education, Bianca Tanis explains. “When books are banned, the conversations become one-sided and erase the stories of those who have been marginalized and silenced or those that raise challenging topics.”

Hidden within so many of the arguments made to censor literature is the growing cloud of fear: Fear of once muted voices, fear of exposing the truth in history, fear of a new and changing society. 

Tanis went on to voice, “We cannot evolve in an echo chamber or without engaging in uncomfortable conversations.” But the echo chamber remains, as the politicizing of the human experiences illustrated within literature has weaponized book challenges, creating unnecessary controversy and growing tension. 

“Just because some of these books aren’t perfect utopian books set in perfect utopian worlds does not mean they should not be published or sold,” Ayala says. “They deal with real problems that require real solutions, and the public needs to understand the world that surrounds them.”

Charlie Ettinger, Sage Rochetti, and Eamonn Rynne pictured in the New Paltz High School’s diverse library

Outraged by the increased movement to silence voices from marginalized communities, many students and libraries have decided to take matters into their own hands. 16 year old, Mandy Zhang is leading the charge in Wappingers Falls schools against the district’s banning of the book, Gender Queer: a Memoir, written by Maia Kobabe, which is considered one of the most frequently banned books in schools across the country. Zhang decided to help launch an online petition to help put the novel back on the shelves in her school library, quickly receiving over a thousand of signatures.

Although New Paltz has not faced any push for censoring novels found in the libraries, Arkans outwardly shows her support towards those found on the list of banned or challenged books. In the past few years, she has been drawn to books from All American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jayson Reynolds to The Color Purple by Alice Walker. 

“All of these books opened my eyes to new experiences and viewpoints,” Arkans says. “Seeing the world through another’s eyes is what makes literature powerful, and these great books do this for the reader.”