Is reading for pleasure destroying our brains? This topic is sweeping political and educational news stories across the country. With the rise of book banning in states like Florida and discourse about reading analysis in corners of social media like “BookTok”, the definition of what reading is, and how it ought to be conducted, becomes controversial.
Prohibitions on free thought and reading are common traits in dystopian political novels which, coincidentally (or perhaps not), are often some of the first to be pulled from public bookshelves. Think of the Handmaid's Tale or Fahrenheit 451 – stories that criticize restrictions on people’s abilities to express themselves and self-educate.
The cultural phenomenon of enforcing restrictions upon free critical thought is called “anti-intellectualism”. Think about being told you’re “too deep” for delving into the metaphor in a novel or your ideas are too “far-fetched” for how a movie might comment on a current event. All of this is in the hopes that people see what others have constructed for them to look at – not what lies beneath.
In recent years, there has been a concerning trend of anti-intellectualism spreading across the country. This movement, which seeks to limit access to information and restrict free thought, is a threat to the principles of democracy and the freedom that we hold dear.
Politically, statewide and local book banning has become a tool for those in power to control the narrative and silence dissenting voices. Books that tackle expository or contentious topics, such as race, sexuality, and politics, are the most targeted. This censorship not only undermines the right to free speech but also hinders the advancement of knowledge and cross-cultural understanding.
Legal orders by the government to restrict information and ideas from being publicized and passed on to third parties such as students are called “gag orders” or “gag bills.” Free expression advocacy group Pen America cites 193 gag order bills introduced in state legislation since Jan. 2021. The non-profit firmly believes that the adoption of these bills “demonstrates a disregard for academic freedom, liberal education, and the values of free speech and open inquiry that are enshrined in the First Amendment and that anchor a democratic society.”
Recent uprisings in educational gag bills have been heavily scrutinized (and supported) in the state of Texas, where 713 book bans were documented in the 2021-2022 school year, the most of any US state. Celebrated works such as The Bluest Eye written by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison and (you guessed it) The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood have been stripped from the shelves of Florida classrooms and libraries. Nationwide, last year’s book bans prohibited 1,145 books, impacting an estimated two million students in almost 3000 schools.
Anti-intellectualism can extend beyond just books and into practices within educational institutions. There have been attempts to erase the history of racial, gender, and sexual minority groups in classroom lessons. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida threatened to ban Advanced Placement (AP) courses entirely from his state’s education system. This came in response to the College Board’s state lawsuit fighting for the ability to provide AP African American studies in Florida. By censoring topics of identity, social justice, and oppression from syllabi, the youth are losing out on opportunities to practice examining perspectives different from their own and thinking critically about the past, and future of their country. If students aren’t learning how to have complex conversations in school, how can they be expected to navigate the increasingly polarized American socio-political landscape?
The trend of politicizing knowledge and publicly degrading the importance of critical thinking and evidence-based decision-making puts democracy in danger. If future citizens are not consistently practicing critical thinking in reading, our society is doomed to make misinformed decisions that do not truly involve our best interests. The cultural lack of interest in critical thinking is just a surface-level issue. According to the US Department of Education, 54% of U.S. adults (16-74 years old) – about 130 million people – lack proficiency in literacy, reading below the equivalent of a sixth-grade level.
Anti-intellectual sentiments carry into the general public with parents who worry about the exposure of certain information to their children. Political rhetoric and online discourse lead parents to distrust and seek interference with the education system. Though holding little legislative power, grassroots movements have been successfully campaigning for the banning of certain school books and topics, fueling current political crusades.
According to Pew Research Center, in 2021, roughly a quarter of American adults (23%) said they hadn’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form. This data is particularly concerning for school libraries, that rely on public use to receive funding for literacy programs and other shared services.
Today, to think critically is an exercise in rebellion. To read a book is innately political. It is up to all of us to resist the current crusade against knowledge and expression. We must take action to protect the principles of democracy by promoting intellectual freedom. By doing so, we can ensure that our society remains a place where ideas can flourish.
“Educational Gag Orders: Legislative Restrictions on the Freedom to Read, Learn, and Teach.” PEN America, 8 Nov. 2021, pen.org/report/educational-gag-orders/. Gelles-Watnick, Risa, and Andrew Perrin. “Who Doesn’t Read Books in America?” Pew Research Center, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/09/21/who-doesnt-read-books-in-america/. Accessed 2 Apr. 2023. Harris, Elizabeth A., and Alexandra Alter. “Book Ban Efforts Spread Across the U.S.” The New York Times, 30 Jan. 2022. NYTimes.com, www.nytimes.com/2022/01/30/books/book-ban-us-schools.html Nietzel, Michael T. “Low Literacy Levels Among U.S. Adults Could Be Costing The Economy $2.2 Trillion A Year.” Forbes, www.forbes.com/sites/michaeltnietzel/2020/09/09/low-literacy-levels-among-us-adults-could-be-costing-the-economy-22-trillion-a-year/. Accessed 2 Apr. 2023. O’Connell-Domenech, Alejandra. “The Five States with the Most Book Bans.” The Hill, 7 Apr. 2022, thehill.com/changing-america/respect/equality/3261964-the-five-states-with-the-most-book-bans/. Tolin, Lisa. “Florida Book Bans Are No Hoax: Here Are The Facts.” PEN America, 10 Mar. 2023, pen.org/florida-book-bans-not-a-hoax/.
Editors: Cydney V., Chris F., Joyce S., Marie H.
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