Teaching Ideology and Banned Books

Helping students understand how ideology influences decisions allows them to be more thoughtful and engaged participants in society. Examining banned books is one way into that awareness and engagement.
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A recent piece in Politico Magazine unearthed the libertarian influence on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic book series Little House on the Prairie. This article highlights the various ways the series has been a pathway to debate and discussion of broader sociopolitical topics such as the merits of the free market. More important, the Politico piece implicitly acknowledges that, whether we’re discussing children’s literature, young adult literature, popular literature or classic literature (or anything in between), we cannot separate ideology from texts. Nor should we try, especially as teachers during a national election like the one unfolding in front of us.

Educators have a role in helping students understand how ideology influences the way people think about the world. Although I am an English teacher, I believe helping students come to better understand ideology is essential for all content areas. STEM fields, for example, are far from free of biases and ideological bents, despite popular opinion to the contrary. For instance, statistics teachers should help students understand how ideology helps influence survey questions and how embedding words such as family and patriotism into the universe of possible responses may cause ideology to sway the results.

I like to tell my students that ideology is the belief system that influences how people make sense of the world around them. In my ninth-grade class, we read several books that are frequent fliers on banned book lists, such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Banned book lists offer a good starting point for discussions about ideology. My students and I kick off by discussing what texts are commonly on these lists—and which aren’t—and what issues cause a book to be banned and why. Some students always point out that topics like sex and violence result in books being banned. However, reading Shakespeare complicates that equation. 

My students are always surprised by the innuendos and juvenile humor in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. “But this is Shakespeare!” some of them gasp. This reaction leads into conversations about why the play is rarely banned. Arguably, Romeo and Juliet deals with as many controversial topics as Satrapi’s text. The difference? Shakespeare is a “classic” writer.

I unpack with my students the ideology behind the term classic. Does it mean old? Somewhat. We then brainstorm what so-called classic texts students are familiar with in order to find common themes among them. Are these texts written by Europeans? Largely, but there are some American writers. Are they all written by males? Not all of them, but certainly women’s representation is lacking. How many authors of color appear on classic lists? Not too many. What about LGBTQ writers? Almost nonexistent. So why is Shakespeare’s coverage of controversial topics OK, but not Satrapi’s? With this conversation, students come to see the ideological forces behind the banning of books. 

All curriculum is political. After all, schools are funded by taxpayers and thus tied to the electorate, if only loosely. And all educational decisions are driven by ideology, whether we’re aware of our own ideological foundations or not. If we do not teach students how to understand and address ideology as part of their meaning-making capacities, then we risk allowing them to be socialized into the dominant, hegemonic belief systems that marginalize segments of our population. That is not healthy for our democracy. Helping students understand how ideology influences decisions allows them to be more thoughtful and engaged participants in society. That should be our goal.    

Miller teaches ninth-grade English language arts at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, the University of Florida’s affiliated K-12 laboratory school. He is also a recipient of the 2016 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching.

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