This year is the 30th anniversary of Banned Book Week, the campaign sponsored by the American Library Association to raise awareness and authentic discussion about censorship. I’ve written before about the perils of censorship – the difficulty of deciding which materials should be censored and for whom, the way book challenges say more about the challengers and their sensibilities than about the work being censored.
It’s fitting that on the last day of Banned Book Week, I attended “The Book of Mormon,” the controversial Broadway play written by the creators of the TV show “South Park.” I’ve never been much of a “South Park” fan – I spend too much time with teenagers to find scatological or irreverent humor original and funny – but the play has garnered so much attention, both good and bad, that when I had the opportunity to see it, I went.
If you aren’t familiar with the story, the play involves two young Mormon missionaries sent to proselytize poor villagers in Uganda. Culture shock keeps the well-meaning missionaries from doing much good for the people suffering from AIDS and the oppression of armed warlords. The set-up is rife with wicked satire.
Throughout, the lyrics are both profane and profanity-filled – and hilarious. More importantly, they speak a truth about truth itself. By the end of the play, all of the characters have a broader understanding of the difference between literal and metaphorical truth. Literature, they decide – including religious literature – doesn’t need to be literally true to have something valuable to teach.
That’s a conclusion that might trouble fundamentalists of any stripe while liberating everyone else. Indeed, as I walked out of the play, I overheard a woman cajoling her obviously offended husband.
“It had a good message,” she said, but his scowl suggested he didn’t agree.
In his recent “Science and Education” blog, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham from the University of Virginia highlights research that shows that we judge people who disagree with us as not only wrong but immoral. That’s why debates quickly devolve into name-calling, why censoring something that offends us personally seems like a reasonable response.
Spawning righteous indignation
It may be one of the reasons the new Common Core curriculum veers away from literature in favor of more nonfiction in English language arts. While informational texts can be occasional lightning rods of controversy, we seem to save our truly righteous indignation for works of fiction – which Willingham says isn’t surprising. After all, he argues, our brains react differently to stories than we do to just about any other cognitive input. Humans are primed to learn this way, and we can’t help but pay more attention to things that have causality, characters and conflict.
Learning to analyze nonfiction is important, of course. Here it is October and the juniors in my American literature class have read only two pieces of fiction. Everything else so far has been historical documents and autobiographies from American history – Paine’s “The Crisis,” The Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” excerpts from Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, to name a few.
My seniors in Advanced Placement English, by contrast, have read almost nothing but fiction. That doesn’t mean we have spent our time reading inconsequential fluff – a perception of fiction that might also be driving some of the changes in the Common Core.
Truth and appearance
Our first thematic unit revolved around the difference between truth and appearance – the surface reality versus the deeper meaning of things. Before we jumped into a story by Julio Cortazar where the character can’t distinguish between his waking life and his dreams, I asked my students to look at the carpet in my room.
“What color is it?” I asked. They were confident that it was blue.
“And when I turn the light off? Will it still be blue?”
Of course it would, they said. Even if they couldn’t see it, they would know that the carpet was blue.
“How do you know what color it is?” I asked.
“We see it.”
“Then you determine color by using your eyes?”
They assured me that they did.
“Use your eyes now,” I said, turning off the light. “If color is the interaction of light waves, your eyes, and your brain, then the color of the carpet isn’t blue when the light is off. It’s black.”
I turned the light back on and we had a lively discussion about the dangers of certainty, of assuming that what we see – or perceive – is somehow the only possible reality.
It’s a lesson that will serve them well – not just as they read all sorts of texts, but as they make their way in the world beyond school, navigating the truth and deciding what it means to them and how they will respond to it.