By David K. Shipler
About a year ago, a mother in a wealthy suburb of Dallas filed a formal complaint against the use of my book The Working Poor: Invisible in America in advanced placement English classes at Highland Park High School. A review committee was formed, but she thought its membership was stacked against her and so withdrew her challenge. That was the end of the story.
Or was it? Not quite. Six of Highland Park’s eighteen English teachers resigned at the end of the year, mostly because of the controversy, which involved seven books altogether and had brought “panic attacks, meltdowns, or outbursts of volcanic anger,” one told me. Going forward, teachers were required to write long rationales justifying the readings they wished to assign, which were then submitted to panels of community residents. Only the principled, daring, and resolute could resist the temptation of “soft censorship” as a way of avoiding controversial works by not choosing them in the first place. This must happen invisibly all across the country.
So even victories over those who try to have books removed have unseen costs. The classroom can be invaded by stress, bureaucracy, politicization, and a sense of danger. Education has “become very unsafe,” said Brian Read, an English teacher in Plymouth-Canton, Michigan, whose selections for AP English—Beloved by Toni Morrison and Waterland by Graham Swift—had survived an angry challenge by a small group of conservative parents who hadn’t read them.
“I was happy to fight it and was wonderfully supported by the community,” Read told me, “but these things take their toll. This was the beginning of, what was to become, an almost crippling state of anxiety. It was during the book challenge that I began having trouble sleeping and would find myself having panic attacks in the middle of the night.” So he dropped out of teaching advanced placement English, down to lower-level courses whose texts were less likely to provoke objections. The classroom, he said, has become “an obvious battleground for political ideologies.”
About 300 to 500 book challenges annually are reported to the American Library Association, which tries to keep track and estimates that many more take place. If teachers acquiesce and no parents rise up in opposition, the suppressions occur silently, and so do the repercussions. Some authors cynically enjoy the publicity and turn it into a joke on the perpetrators, as Mark Twain did in 1885 after the Concord, Mass. public library’s board (which included Louisa May Alcott) banned Huckleberry Finn for what one member called its “rough, ignorant dialect” and its “systematic use of bad grammar and an employment of inelegant expressions.” (Nowadays, it’s often banned for its use of the word “nigger.”)
Mark Twain was then voted honorary membership in the Concord Free Trade Club, which he accepted with this delicious note: “A committee of the public library of your town have condemned and excommunicated my last book and doubled its sale. This generous action of theirs must necessarily benefit me in one or two additional ways. For instance, it will deter other libraries from buying the book; and you are doubtless aware that one book in a public library prevents the sale of a sure ten and a possible hundred of its mates. And, secondly, it will cause the purchasers of the book to read it, out of curiosity, instead of merely intending to do so, after the usual way of the world and library committees; and then they will discover, to my great advantage and their own indignant disappointment, that there is nothing objectionable in the book after all.”
Being a man of considerably less wit, I took little pleasure in the challenge against The Working Poor until I got to meet some of the students who were reading it, teachers who were teaching it, and parents who were defending it. I have since become friends long distance with one parent leader, Lynn Dickinson, almost entirely by emailed discussions of writing, poetry, politics, and other issues that we would never have had were it not for the book controversy.
So, too, a substantial group of parents in that school district found one another by rallying to the cause of their children’s right and need to read at the outer edges of their abilities. They organized, campaigned, established friendships, and are now about to receive the Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award at the American Library Association’s meeting in Boston. The group, calling itself HP Kids Read, continues to monitor the school system and stands ready to push back again if necessary.
As exhilarating as it is, however, this kind of community uprising, while in the best tradition of America’s values of independent thought, cannot erase the harm done across the ragged lines of the culture wars.
The conflict at Highland Park began in September 2014 when conservative parents objected to the seven books, prompting the superintendent of schools to suspend them summarily, without due process. His timing was perfect. It was Banned Books Week, and ridicule spread nationwide. Sardonic speculation appeared online that he’d thought that during Banned Books Week he was supposed to ban books.
A little less than two weeks later, the superintendent reversed himself and returned the books to the curriculum, and announced that proper challenges would have to be made on the appropriate forms for any work to be considered for removal. (One formal challenge, of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, had been filed and quickly withdrawn, possibly out of embarrassment that Walls was scheduled to speak at Highland Park’s literary festival.) Only two were then targeted: The Working Poor and The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, which ultimately survived. The four others went unchallenged: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and An Abundance of Katherines by John Green.
The dispute gave me more access to students than the complaining parents wanted: About one hundred teenagers who had read The Working Poor came to an after-school Skype discussion with me, and six months later HP Kids Read arranged for me to give an evening talk in the high-school auditorium. The principal wouldn’t have me visit the classes that were going to read the book, but one teacher invited me to meet with his creative writing students and the school newspaper staff.
When I asked the staff what problems existed in the high school that might make interesting stories for their paper, the first couple of students who spoke mentioned homogeneity, a sameness of race and class that they found frustrating and limiting. The outside world might have come to see Highland Park as parochially affluent and contemptuously conservative, but here was another picture.
So, too, among the parents who supported the books. At dinner, I asked them for their motives. I’m told they spread along a political spectrum, but a common denominator was their determination to uphold their individual freedom to decide for themselves and their children, not to forfeit that control to a handful of other parents.
Nevertheless, English teachers I met told me that they were not teaching Chapter Six of The Working Poor, “Sins of the Fathers,” which examines parenting and family dysfunction as one problem among many in poverty. It contains women’s inexplicit accounts of having been sexually abused as children, included only because they mentioned those traumas as reasons for their inability to form healthy relationships with men, to trust others, to think well of themselves, or to be emotionally accessible, all of which contribute to their continuing handicaps.
The mother who challenged the book cited those stories, but she also had a political agenda. She suggested that the students read, instead, books by Ayn Rand, Ben Carson, and others rejecting the notion that you can be poor in America even if you work hard.
Ironically, by skipping Chapter Six, the teachers also skip a section on parental drug abuse, inadequate nurturing, and other family failures that would appeal to conservatives’ emphasis on personal irresponsibility as a factor in poverty. And do kids read the chapter anyway? I have no doubt. They just read that difficult material without adult supervision, which is a loss for them beneath the ostensible victory.
*Parts of this essay are adapted from the Afterword in the paperback edition of Freedom of Speech, being published by Vintage in April 2016.