David Eide – Opinion Columnist
Beloved by Toni Morrison has been in the news lately, unfortunately, not for any reasons relating to the quality of the work. Instead, Beloved is in the news because Glenn Youngkin, the Republican governor-elect of Virginia, has utilized it in his attacks on Virginia’s educational system which includes the book in its curriculum. According to CBS, an ad by the Youngkin campaign featured parents upset that their son was taught Beloved in his high school. Specifically, they criticize the Democratic candidate for governor for vetoing a bill that would have granted parents the right to block books containing shocking sexual or violent content.
This is absolute nonsense. Parents should not have absolute control over what their children learn in school in general, especially when their children are of high school age. High school is an important transitional stage where children learn how to exist somewhat independently of their parents to prepare them for adulthood when they are expected to be fully independent. While I do understand that parents wish to protect their children from the harsh realities of the world found in a number of these works, the fact remains that eventually, their kids will have to face these ugly truths.
Speaking more specifically, it is extremely important for students to be exposed to material that they may find shocking to their sensibilities. I firmly believe that consuming fiction that we find to be difficult is a necessary part of personal growth. Often, we find ourselves falling into a comfortable groove in the media we consume, never venturing outside our comfort zones to experience things that we could potentially find upsetting. However, this often serves to limit our horizons. For example, Beloved features an incredibly raw and deeply upsetting portrayal of the horrors of slavery that many may find hard to read. However, in doing so, they can perhaps gain a better appreciation of the nightmare of American slavery that a dry history textbook may not offer.
I can speak from personal experience about the utility of reading books that are frequently challenged by parents. In my senior year of high school, we had to read The Things They Carried, a collection of connected stories all about the Vietnam war, by Tim O’Brien. The Things They Carried is a very difficult book, containing intense violence, strong language, and very dark themes all around. As a result of these, it is often challenged by parents who don’t wish for their children to be exposed to such things.
However, I consider The Things They Carried to be one of the most important books that I’ve ever read. It contains meditations on grief, the impossibility of morality in war, and the role of storytelling as a kind of cultural therapy. This is a critical book for understanding the experiences of Vietnam war veterans, far more, I found, than any textbooks or documentaries on the subject. The Things They Carried was one of the key books that carried me through the transition into my adult life and without it, I would be a vastly different and likely less developed person today.
When students are not allowed to experience books like Beloved or The Things They Carried, their personal depth is greatly stymied. Instead, we should seek to expose students to books that challenge their preconceived notions and make them genuinely question the aspects of the world that often go ignored. Fiction forces us into others’ shoes and as a result, it is one of the most effective tools for promoting empathy that we currently have.
It can be extremely discomforting to empathize with the experiences found in books like Beloved or The Things They Carried and yet this pain is necessary because these books reflect a dark reality. African Americans have and continue to suffer immense racism and brutality in this country, the Vietnam War was hell. Rather than seeking to shelter students from books dealing with these topics, we should instead teach them and help students form their own interpretations. We need to face difficult truths, not avoid them.
So no, I don’t think books like Beloved should be removed from high school curriculums or libraries. Rather, I think that everyone should be reading books that may contain content they find difficult; students, parents, everyone. Perhaps then we can finally begin to address the serious problems our country faces rather than trying to ban books because you’re not comfortable with your kids learning about racism.