IWN: “Banned Book” Forum at Brown University Failed to Deliver Diversity of Thought
By the co-founders of the RI Chapter of the Independent Women’s Network
“It would have been helpful to hear a perspective – on behalf of parents – who struggle with the idea that some of these books do indeed overly expose young children to controversial ideas and topics.”
On Wednesday May 3rd, we attended an event hosted by the Democracy Project at Brown University, “Banned Book/Banned Bodies”, sponsored by the Center for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE). The event was part of The Freedom to Learn National Day of Action.
The event was advertised as a talk that would cover topics ranging from a discussion on the efforts to censor educators, banning books – leading to “banning bodies”. How efforts to ban books are related to laws banning abortion care and transgender care, and how policing gender and censoring reading are vital threats to democracy and equal education at all levels.
However, we were disappointed in the level of intellect in the scholarly material presented, as well as the lack of diversity of thought and the arguments made in support of the panelist’s points of view. The audience of 25 -30 people seemed to share my view of an uninspiring event with their lackluster attitude during the question-and-answer time. This was made more obvious when a few people walked out during the event – out of boredom it seemed.
Unsurprisingly, the Panel’s talking points were completely one-sided and in-line with what I would expect to hear from a progressive, left-leaning institution.
The panelists consisted of faculty, administrators, and students from a variety of areas across Brown campus: senior administration, The PPE Center, Modern Culture and Media, Department of Africana Studies and two undergraduate students.
Lea Van Wey– Dean of Faculty, Provost’s Office. Professor of Environment and Society and Sociology.
Jonathan E Collins – Assistant Professor of Political Science, Public Policy, and Education, Education Department
Macarena Gomez-Barris – Chair and Professor of Modern Culture and Media
Bonnie H Honig – Professor of Modern Culture and Media and Political Science, One of three, Directors of the Democracy Project
Noliwe Rooks – Chair and Professor of Africana Studies
Ryan M Doherty – Undergraduate Student
Female student (name unlisted) – representative from Brown Votes – A non-partisan, university-wide, collective impact initiative committed to fostering democratic participation across campus. Brown Votes facilitates voter registration and education, engages in advocacy, drives independent research, and acts as a hub for collaboration with partner campus organizations.
The Center for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) website lists in its description : “Democracy is assumed to include a political and moral orientation toward equality and fairness for citizens/residents that depends on robust opportunities for voice, affirmation, mobilization, and dissent.”
The last part of this sentence was the key missing factor – there was no dissent for anything presented by anyone on the panel. In fact, as each panelist spoke – the others nodded along in complete agreement, including the moderator. If that was to be the case, I wonder why they needed 7 panelists?
We attended the event with an eagerness to learn and listen to serious scholarly in-depth arguments and explanations for and against the nuances of the issues and ideas associated with “Book Banning”. However, even though the panel was composed of a varied group of people from across campus, every member advocated similar points of view. It was disappointing to see that the panel lacked representatives of alternate positions of any sort.
Interestingly, we realized that many of the discussion points appeared to speak on the curation of books, rather than the actual ‘banning’ of books. This distinction was not addressed by any of the panel members until the question was asked by an audience member at the end of the session. The point was then dismissed and at least one panel member didn’t seem to understand the concept – which was alarming.
There was an inordinate amount of time spent on ‘suppression’ of African American literature. Suppression of literature of any group is certainly an important part of the discussion on book Banning. But it is only one part of the larger issue. The point made in this regard, was that by banning selected books ( for example), “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison published in 1970 – one is actually banning African American ‘bodies’ from telling their story.
The Bluest Eye is a novel with graphic descriptions of controversial topics of racism, incest, and child molestation that have led to numerous attempts to ban the novel from schools and libraries in the United States. It seems obvious why parents would shy away from wanting their children exposed to these topics and would want to have these books curated in school libraries.
Whatever the history and literature of an ethnic group of people, there are ways to teach without exposure to these graphic descriptions. We would think the African American authors would not want their society to be represented by such literature and would welcome limiting exposure of such representation. Instead, we were treated to outrage by the panelist at the idea of ‘banning’ this particular book – because it signifies African American history and ‘culture’.
Noticeably there was no one who spoke on the issue of parents and educators who are concerned of age-inappropriate material being presented in schools. On a personal note, even though my children are now grown up, if I had children in schools now, we would not want this exposure. We believe that overly graphic, sexualized material can be frightening to young children and is offensive to the sensibilities of many parents. These parents have a right to be accommodated for their values and beliefs. Some consideration and discussion were needed for this side of the argument.
It would have been helpful to hear an educator speak on the perspective – on behalf of parents – who struggle with the idea that some of these books do indeed overly expose young children to controversial ideas and topics. Children have learned American History, Politics, Culture and Social Studies for many years.
However, it seems we are now being told that these subjects can not be taught without introducing explicit racist, divisional concepts and sexualized material. What has changed? Exposure to such ideas is inappropriate for young children and polite society. In my belief these ideas lead to anxiety and confusion for young children – increasing the need for mental health support. We have to ask, is there any wonder why mental health issues have skyrocketed in this country?
One statement in particular was disconcerting – along the lines of – teachers should decide curriculum without regard to parents’ wishes, because they are “experts”. It would behoove educators and administrators to remember – public schools are there to serve the parents, not DICTATE their personal views to parents.
At the end of the session my brief conversation regarding the point that this was a one-sided presentation, was summed up by the moderator: On a college campus, in academia, of course, this is THE only sensible point of view.
All in all, we were hoping that the PPE Center of all places, would have provided an opportunity for a more balanced and in-depth discussion on the topic of “Banned” Books. However, the Center more readily solidified the reputation of liberal academia to be focused more so only to push ideas that are closed minded and liberally slanted with no purpose other than to force a specific narrative point of view on the audience.
Instead of being an informative discussion on the complexities of the Book Banning issue, the talk felt more like an opportunity for the panelists to show their outrage at right wing political hot points ranging from book banning, abortion, and racism, to transphobia.
The days following this presentation left us feeling dejected about the seeming ability and desire of academia to produce intellectual scholarly work. If higher education at the most respected universities in the US now produces this level of academic work, where else can we turn to for serious research and study if not from the best faculty in the world?
Are we to assume that US universities that once educated world renowned scholars and prepared generations of students to become contributors of society at the highest levels, now have a mission only to indoctrinate thought, and sway opinion to one side or another based on progressive ideological politics? Where is the intellectual back and forth discussion that can lead to understanding nuances of the many points of complex issues?