Out of Africa

In 2010, when we were on our second safari in Tanzania, we again splurged on a posh yurt village in the Serengeti. This time we met a wealthy couple from England, pompous name-droppers who claimed to be friends of David Cameron, then the Prime Minister. I knew we held different values when she appeared at dinner in a flowing white linen shirt and palazzo pants, knowing full well that locals would have to try to wash them in water heated over an open fire. At dinner one night, she confirmed that sense when she started denigrating zoos. Another guest and I pointed out that zoos were responsible for significant conservation efforts, like the Amsterdam Zoo’s program for black rhinos, and that many people could only learn about animals through zoo. “Oh, no,” she replied blithely. “They should just all come to Africa to see animals for themselves.” Clueless and out of touch, she failed to see the value of empowering people to learn about the world beyond their own lives.

I have been thinking of her attitude a lot lately as I continue to read about the attacks at library board and school board meetings as people fight to curtail access to books for readers. Yet reading is an invaluable way for each of us to expand our awareness of worlds hitherto unknown to us. As a teacher, I always accommodated parents who had concerns about works in our curriculum. As an educator, parent, grandparent, and citizen of this country, I am appalled at the efforts of conservative individuals and groups to limit not only their reading of their own family members but of everyone. They would remove so many books from libraries and schools that many students would never see themselves reflected in their reading, much less learn about others who are different.

Consider this passage from Reading is Fundamental [scenicregional.org]:

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.

I am somewhat comforted, though, by Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I am relieved to see many organizations actively working to support those of us who would fight such censorship. These include the following:

If I were still in an English classroom, I would depend upon the efforts of the National Council of Teachers of English. Their “This Story Matters” initiative provides rationales to defend books under attack. Their position says it best:

The right to read is one of the foundations of a democratic society, and teachers need the freedom to support that right so their students can make informed decisions and be valuable contributors to our world. A story can encourage diversity of thought, broaden global perspectives, celebrate unique cultures, and motivate the reader to achieve their dreams. This right matters. This Story Matters.