A COPLAC Digital Distance Learning Course

Author: rogers (Page 2 of 2)

Responding to Boyer and Downs

The two chapters that our class read in A History of the Book in America, both summaries of censorship in the United States in subsequent periods, were rather an interesting overview. Chapter four, by Paul S. Boyer, focused on censorship from 1880 to 1940, with Donald A. Downs’ chapter 5 focusing on censorship from 1945 to what was then the present, with the book being published in 2009 and likely completed with regards to content somewhat before that.

Boyer’s chapter initially focused on the American “genteel tradition,” which had taken over by the time this chapter started in 1880. I presume that the chapter previous focused on censorship in the time period immediately prior to this, which explains the slight disconnect here. The censorship at this point, which often involved the modifying of classics like Shakespeare and Chaucer, which, as somewhat of an autodidact Shakespeare scholar, means removing a large chunk of many of the bard’s plays, which is rather upsetting. It is incredibly difficult to imagine many of Shakespeare’s plays, especially his comedies, without constant references to and jokes about sex. Still, it is not difficult to see why many of Shakespeare’s plays were censored and replaced by books such as the Family Shakespeare. It is difficult to imagine a sexless Shakespeare when one of his most popular comedies, Much Ado About Nothing, quite literally has a sex joke as its title. (“Nothing” was slang for female genitalia, thus being entitled “Much Ado About Vaginas,” put rather bluntly.)

The discussion in both chapters about the manner in which censorship was less a de jure and more a de facto status was a very notably point. By that, I mean that, even when censorship was not enshrined in law, publishers and book sellers, as well as the citizens and librarians who bought said books, did quite a bit to determine what books were available to be consumed and sold. Ultimately, publishers and booksellers were concerned above all with their bottom line (in general, with some exceptions), and thus books that would lead to public rebuttal leading possibly to the loss of business certainly functioned as a poor economic decision.

Let us skip through most of these chapters in order to discuss one of the most interesting and tricky topics touched upon in these pages. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the most modern topics discussed by Downs (Boyer being too far back in history for this), namely progressive censorship. This concept, of course, carries with it the implication that all censorship prior to this had been by nature conservative, which is likely true as a general rule, but that seems somewhat overly simplistic (as one would perhaps expect from an overview such as this).

Liberal censorship, in our modern casual lexicon, ultimately comes down to the policing of speech that is not considered “politically correct.” As much as I enjoy condemning racist and otherwise discriminatory language, I absolutely believe people should have the right to utilize said language, though those around them should similarly be able to react as they choose. I have gotten into several rather aggressive confrontations with those close to me arguing for the right of, say, white supremacists to hold their beliefs and express them, as long as they stay within the domain of the law. I suspect the reason I am much more liberal/libertarian as opposed to progressive with regard to censorship in this manner due to my dual traits as a student of history and a (probably former at this point) Communist. It is difficult for me to argue for the censoring of far-right views when I know full well that this could lead to a similar level of censorship on the left. As much as I would like to do away with discriminatory and inflammatory speech, I am very much fearful what else could be censored if we are to accept as much. There is the somewhat amusing exception to my strong leftist progressivism and occasional authoritarian leanings.

Image result for skokie v. NSPA

NSPA v. Skokie allowed the American Nazi Party to march through a community of Holocaust survivors on the basis of free speech.

Link to image:


A Burning Idea: Progress Report 2

It has been a while since my first progress report, so it seems appropriate to offer up a second. Lauren and I did, ultimately, confirm our decision to pursue the case regarding the banning of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass in the Halton Catholic School District in Halton, Ontario, Canada. That being the case, we have continued to accrue those articles we could find online and in databases, though we have likely hit a practical limit on how much information we can extract from more of as much. We have also successfully gotten in contact with the Halton Catholic School District itself, and have obtained a few incredibly valuable documents in the report of the subcommittee which reviewed the challenge to The Golden Compass, a blank version of the form one would fill out in order to challenge a book, and the  school board meeting minutes for the date in which the book was banned.

It is worth noting, as I cannot recall whether or not I did in my prior posting on this topic, that the subcommittee which reviewed Pullman’s novel urged the school district to keep it on the shelves, seeing it as still having value. This subcommittee recommendation was brought before the school board meeting, where it was shot down before a motion to ignore the subcommittee’s recommendation and ban the book anyway was passed.

At this point, Lauren and I are attempting to get in contact with some of those involved with the case in order to hear their views on what happened and in order to collect more first-hand accounts, but we have had limited success as of yet, with the email meant to be checked by the Director of Library Services for the entire (and rather large) Halton Catholic School District not yet eliciting a response, which is highly unfortunate, as the same man was the Director of Library Services in 2007, when this incident occurred, as is now. We are also looking for possible ways to contact the school board members of the time, though none of them are still currently serving, making that difficult. Student and parent perspectives would be very much appreciated, as well, but, at this point, we certainly have enough non-interview data to cover all but the final details, so parent and student interviews would mostly be a bonus at this point, as opposed to the requirement for a functioning website that the school board meeting minutes or an interview with a then-member would be.

Here is an attempt at embedding a link, this one simply to the main page of the Halton Catholic District School Board.

Meeting with Our Research Librarian

SUNY Geneseo’s “research librarians” page on the school website lists nine different people who could be classified as research librarians, primarily divided by their subject. We chose to meet with Sue Ann Brainard, who focuses on the subjects of History and English and Literature, which seemed appropriate for a project that is ultimately historical research on a piece of literature, even if admittedly an event that happened only just over a decade ago with a series of children’s novels. The skills are certainly the same, though.

Going into this meeting, Lauren, my partner in this project, and I, were unsure about what we were going to get out of it. We had already found quite a few news articles regarding the banning of The Golden Compass in the Halton Catholic School District in Halton, Ontario. We figured that we already had what we needed/could get from databases/the internet.

Brainard was extremely welcoming, and more helpful than my ever-pessimistic self was expecting. She very quickly had for us a list of databases that would be potentially useful, and found several useful articles that we were unable to find, as well as managing to locate on online database containing historical records from the Halton Catholic School District, as well as the parochial schools which preceded it. We were only able to meet for half an hour due to the constraints of my class schedule, but she still had a very comprehensive list of potential sources and locations of sources that she emailed to us immediately after our meeting.

She also had quite a bit of experience and wisdom that she imparted upon us on how best to get documents out of institutions, and directed us to question the education research librarian further if we had additional difficulty obtaining data, which we so far have not had to do.

Brainard specifically pushed upon us several databases of newspapers, namely InfoTrac Newsstand (Gale), Newspaper Source Plus, Google News Archive Search, New York Times Article Archive, and the database of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, or CBC, which is obviously useful because of the Canadian location of our case. Some of these we certainly would have thought of on our own, but others, such as the CBC database, were useful additions that would not have come to mind unprompted. Overall, despite relatively low expectations for this meeting, and being unsure what we would get out of it, Lauren and I firmly agreed that the meeting with one of our research librarians, Sue Ann Brainard, was well worth the time as more than simply a box to check for class. Have a pretty picture!


A Response to Bobbi Swiderek’s “Censorship”

This article is rather interesting, and is certainly useful from my perspective as a future secondary school teacher. There is certainly something appreciable about the fact that swaths of Swiderek’s middle schoolers would be confused as to why a litany of books were being promoted by the school library as having been “banned,” and therefore encouraged reading. Of course, this is a rather nebulous category. The American Library Association’s list, for instance, includes a variety of actions from all-out bannings to the most minor and quickly rejected of challenges. Still, the fact that we are encouraging students to read “controversial” material is certainly a good thing.

Still, it is worth noting the problems that come with celebrating and encouraging the reading of banned books. Certainly, there will be much of value in such a collection. But, considering the publicity that can come with such an endorsement from the ALA, it is also worth being wary of books, like actors or any other form of media, who stir up controversy just to benefit from the attention. Certainly, one would imagine most do not write books with the goal of getting them banned, and one would hope most authors, especially children’s authors, to not be so conniving as to deliberately get their book banned for the free attention. Still, such a list and celebration of books that were challenged or banned, by nature, will be open to exploitation and must be something we are cautious of. Just because a book is challenged or banned does not mean that ti has something valuable or significant to say or portray.

To return to Swiderek, she expresses an appreciable astonishment about just how many different things in books parents and the like object to. Swiderek’s observation that the two “m words” of masturbation and menstruation are the most frequently objected to certainly seems to have truth in it. The urge to protect one’s children from the outside world is certainly an understandable and natural one, but, considering the inevitability of puberty and of growing up more generally, such objections are slightly curious. Of course, this is likely a cultural issue. As we can certainly see with the likes of film ratings, themselves a form of censorship, Americans are very much averse to allowing their children to witness any development of the body or sexuality, while having relatively few objections about gruesome violence. That is not to say that Americans are perfectly content to allow their five-year-old to watch a fictional dismemberment, but our culture as a whole vilifies the relatively natural acts that accompany physical maturation while offering relatively few objection to fictionalized violence, which, to me, at least, seems rather backwards. From what I am familiar, European countries such as France tend to have things the other way around, being much more apt to censor violence than sex.

This is illustrated well by one of the most laudable acts Swiderek shares in her piece. There was a book that a parent was refusing to allow her child to read and refusing to return the copy she had checked out because of a passage of swearing that both parent and child had focused on, neither actually reading the book. The novel was about a World War II bombardier, and the cursing section was directed at the main character after he froze up and failed to drop the bomb he was meant to. Swiderek explained the book and got the copy returned, but it is worth noting that the violence of dropping a bomb was not what was objected to, but the cursing in this passage.

Ultimately, one will not be able to change the culture and cognition of the United States to exchange our general positions on the acceptability of violence and objections to sex. Bobbi Swiderek’s article was certainly useful and impressive, and helped illustrate this problematic tendency among the American public.

A Burning Idea: Progress Report 1

Documented cases of book censorship near SUNY Geneseo are difficult to come by. There was an incident in Brighton, not far from here, relatively recently, but said challenge of the LGBTQ Young Adult novel Rainbow Boys, by Alex Sanchez, was already done by a previous group. Instead, then, my partner for this project, Lauren Sternberg, and I had to find an incident still within a reasonable distance from Geneseo, as this project is meant to be local. We examined incidents in Johnson City, near the city of Binghampton, around two hours away, where two children’s books which included portrayals of the violence of the War in Afghanistan were challenged, as well as in Lackawanna, near Buffalo, just over an hour from Geneseo. The incident in Lackawanna involved the removal of several books from recommended school reading lists for their supposed occult influence on children, although said books, including Eoin Colfer’s The Supernaturalist, were eventually restored following protestations of censorship on the part of district parents and teachers. Although there were a couple of other incredibly minor incidents, those were a similar distance away, and, ultimately, Lauren and I decided that we would take up the Lackawanna case, pending one final check for a better option. Fortunately, said better option was found just in time, in the form of the children/young adult novel The Golden Compass (known as Northern Lights in its original British publications and in most places outside of North America), by Philip Pullman. The novel, the first in the His Dark Materials trilogy, was widely contested and banned due to its perceived anti-religious and anti-Catholic sentiment. The trilogy’s main antagonists are the world’s governing theocracy, led by the Magisterium, who actively repress facts that would be problematic to their rule, as well as performing cruel and unusual experiments on children with the aim of discovering the nature of sin. It is not at all difficult to see why so many schools, especially Catholic schools, had objections to and banned this book, most notably for our purposes in the Halton Catholic School District near Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where is was removed from shelves, only to be later returned. Pullman, the author, having described himself as “trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief” and referring to his books as being about “killing God” likely made doing away with his books in some districts all the more likely. The Vatican even stepped in regarding the series and the movie version of the first book that had then just been released, condemning both, with the Catholic League, based in the United States, stating that the purpose of the film was to “bash Christianity and promote atheism” to youths, while encouraging all Christians to stay away from the movie. This novel, series, and movie having been widely banned and challenged, will make an excellent topic for this website on book censorship, especially with the events in Halton and other school districts across the United States and Canada. There is certainly a reason that The Golden Compass has been on lists such as Banned Libraries as one of the most frequently banned books, where Pullman’s novel lasted from 200 all the way to 2007.




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