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Anti-Intellectualism and Reading for Pleasure: The New Attack on Books

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 the