Paul Thayer Florence: Controversial books are necessary for students to develop critical thinking skills

As a young college student, efforts to ban books in Utah worry me.

As a young college student, efforts to ban books in Utah under HB 374 worry me. HB 374 directs local education agencies, such as school libraries, to keep sensitive material and pornographic or indecent content out of school libraries. Under this definition, Utah parents have argued that any book with sexual or pornographic content should be withdrawn without considering the book as a whole.

Effectively handing parents control over what can be in school libraries restricts children and adolescents’ freedom of choice, as one of the most essential parts of education is subjecting yourself to multiple viewpoints besides the ones you grew up with. Reading a diversity of books with multiple viewpoints saves us from being stuck in an echo chamber, preparing students for difficult conversations with those they might disagree with.

Throughout my high school years, I read a multitude of books that contained uncomfortable scenes or difficult and complex themes. Starting my freshman year, my class read “Speak” by Laurie Halse Andersen, which follows a young woman’s efforts to come to terms with being raped at a high school party. Reading a challenging book like this early on allowed us to learn how to respectfully discuss complex issues.

Later on, in my AP English literature class, we read “Beloved” by Toni Morrison. While this book contained many uncomfortable themes, reading it allowed students to have open discussions about the history of racism in our country.

“Speak” led to critical and open discussions about sexual violence and toxic masculinity; while reading “Beloved” helped my class better understand the history of slavery and its negative impacts that continue today. While books like these can be uncomfortable to read in the moment, they open an avenue for critical discussion with family and classmates. Allowing students to read books like these furthers their academic and emotional development, as reading a multitude of viewpoints allows us to develop empathy and critical thinking skills.

Reading these books also highlights the role of educators in preparing students for their future. While the books I read contained uncomfortable subjects, the teachers I had were able to skillfully guide discussions of these complex themes, promoting constructive dialogue in the classroom. Teachers like these help students understand a multitude of viewpoints and develop critical argumentative skills. Banning or censoring certain books undercuts educators’ goal of critical development that prepares students for their future by getting them involved in discussion and debate involving sensitive topics and difficult themes.

Many book banning efforts, in Utah and other states, involve reading only particular scenes or passages or, in some cases, not even reading the books at all and submitting a pre-conceived list of books that should be banned. However, as a student, I know that it is only in reading a book as a whole that a person can understand the complexities of it. Only reading certain passages or chapters can distort the message of the whole book. A better choice than asking for books that have uncomfortable passages or themes to be banned is for parents to have critical discussions with their children about the sensitive issues brought up. This can help them develop new perspectives and clear up misunderstandings.

Developing a standard for book review based on entire text — instead of allowing parents to ban books left and right without having read them — would allow for freedom of choice and critical discussions of issues that might not otherwise be discussed in the household. While many books contain sensitive scenes or issues, many of the same books teach important lessons about empathy, compassion and understanding history from multi-faceted viewpoints.

Encourage the Utah Legislature to adopt a more workable standard and acknowledge that reading a work as a whole should guide decisions — then students will develop critical thinking skills, better engage in open dialogue and have a more diverse education.

Paul Thayer Florence is a rising sophomore at Whitman College and an intern for the Alliance for a Better Utah.