For the last 14 years, I have enjoyed teaching philosophy and ethics. Where else can you get paid to sit around and reflect upon the significance of ideas? If philosophers understand and agree upon nothing else, it is this axiom: Ideas are dangerous things. Ideas are the things of revolutions.
Voltaire was correct when he said, “Philosophers rule the world 500 years after their death.”
While I am excited about reading classical philosophy to challenge the mind, I am not a fool. I know most people do not want to read the painstaking analysis of thinkers like Aristotle or Duns Scotus. Most of the public interact better with philosophy at a more popular level, the level of the political and social novel.
We see difficult and explosive ideas discussed in works like “The Catcher in the Rye,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Lord of the Flies.” Authors like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell propel their readers into another world and confront them with the injustice and social problems of our age.
Most people learn about philosophy and ethics from books that force the reader to challenge his or her presuppositions about the world. While teachers like myself consider this a necessity for ensuring the future of society, not all are happy.
All of the texts listed above have become literary classics and are now woven into the fabric of our society. Each of them also has a long history of being challenged and banned in both school and public libraries.
In 2010, it is hard to believe that Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” or “For Whom the Bell Tolls” were heavily challenged as dangerous reading. The works of J.R.R. Tolkien and the Song of Solomon all were once attacked and sometimes removed from public view. I was shocked to notice that “My Sister’s Keeper” by Jodi Picoult made the American Library Associations’ Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2009.
Why are books banned? Often books are claimed to harm the young. Books are challenged as being too sexual, too graphic or just plain religious.
I think more often than not, book banning is motivated by a fear of ideas. While it should be noted that many books are not suitable for young readers, banning books is usually motivated by an unwillingness to face a social or intellectual reality. When one cannot handle controversial ideas, the tendency is to remove them. Banning books says as much about the book as it does about those calling for a removal of the text.
As we stand at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, we need to stop and remind ourselves of the importance of the First Amendment and a free flow of ideas in the public marketplace.
Banning books and making material off limits has consequences. It stifles the intellectual progress of society. Many who call for banning books hope that the questions and concerns presented in these texts will be removed from public sight. This might happen in a limited sense, but ultimately the questions just go underground and create social anxiety.
We often know that something is wrong with our world. These classic texts are all attempts to help us ask and discuss foundational questions about the moral, social and religious fabric of our world. Banning books does nothing to solve these questions; it simply makes us afraid to ask.
Therefore in the spirit of literary freedom and free speech, I want to affirm my support of the American Library Association’s Banned and Challenged Book Week, Sept. 25 to Oct. 2.
With that in mind, I am on my way to Barnes & Noble to purchase my 9-year-old a copy of “Winnie the Pooh,” “Animal Farm,” “The Invisible Man” and “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
Monty M. Self is the oncology chaplain at Baptist Health Medical Center – Little Rock and an adjunct instructor of ethics at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.