In November of 1973, just days after his birthday, in fact, Kurt Vonnegut wrote what was then a private letter to the Drake, North Dakota, school board. This letter, reproduced in Vonnegut’s masterful collection of nonfiction, Palm Sunday, addressed a particularly disturbing event—the banning and then burning of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
Vonnegut’s letter offers an impassioned and personal plea for the school board of Drake to consider Vonnegut as a person and as a writer, a writer whose messages have always called for human dignity, human decency, and, despite Vonnegut’s own quasi-agnostic/atheistic humanism, human compassion built on the teachings of Jesus. At one point in the letter, Vonnegut admits that in America the board had the right to admonish his book and monitor what children were reading, but he also exercises his right to speak freely about the board’s action—notably the burning of the novel in a furnace—which he labels “un-American.”
And here is where I step into a place I find uncomfortable—as a person, teacher, scholar of Vonnegut’s work (a book on teaching Vonnegut and a critical analysis of Cat’s Cradle), and deep admirer/reader of everything Kurt Vonnegut has penned: I have to respectfully disagree because banning books (and meticulously controlling and assigning which books children read and what children write) is, in fact, the American Way.
I taught high school English for 18 years in rural upstate South Carolina, in the high school of my hometown. My experiences during those years taught me to disagree with Vonnegut on this point.
Adults—administrators, teachers, librarians, and parents—were convinced that children should have their reading selected for them and monitored closely. My department members persisted, as they always had, to assigned three or four novels and plays to each grade level, often linked as well to ability levels within those grade levels—despite the very real and obvious fact that students overwhelmingly did not read assigned books. Students learned to use support materials (such as Cliff’s Notes) or simply to listen in class for what the teacher told the students to know and say about each assigned work.
For Whom the Bell Tolls was handed out and collected weeks later, but few things happened with those Perma-bound copies that could pass for reading.
But two moments remain with me to this day that suggest that most Americans remain unfit for freedom or democracy—a point raised by Henry David Thoreau in “Civil Disobedience”:
"‘That government is best which governs not at all’; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.”
One year, I had parents of a senior in Advanced Placement Literature and Composition request a meeting with me, a meeting attended by the principal as well. These parents were educators themselves, and I had asked their son to move to a more advanced English after meeting him in my homeroom during his tenth grade. I wasn’t sure why the meeting was needed, but once we were settled into the principal’s office, the student’s mother essentially railed at me about the books I assigned and allowed students to read in the advanced classes. She was challenging my use of Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth and wanted me to use instead works by C. S. Lewis.
At its essence, this complaint was a charge that I was indoctrinating my students with Campbell (who work I used to help them understand a Jungian/mythological approach to literature and to examine their own questions instead of simply accepting what anyone tells them), but this parent was not upset about indoctrination, instead of education; it was that she wanted me to use my class to perpetuate the belief system she and her family endorsed.
As well, also related to my senior Advanced Placement course, I had a confrontation with our school librarian who was deeply concerned that I assigned Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which she felt was sub-par literature. I calmly suggested that she read from the shelves of the library over which she monitored the number of critical works addressing the high quality of Walker’s novel. Despite her reservations—and her repeated comments about leading a move to ban the book from my class (yes, the librarian of the school was considering banning a book from my class)—she left our conversation contemplating simply removing her children from the advanced program.
These, I believe, are not mere anecdotal outliers of a few parents (all of whom were educators as well). The American Way is not about truth and justice, it is not about freedom, free speech, or academic freedom.
The American Way is banning books, masking the world from children, and perpetuating under the guise of “education” mere indoctrination through the universal public school system.
And now we sit in 2011, and Kurt Vonnegut is assailed once again:
“Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and young adult novel Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler have both been banned from a school curriculum and library in a Missouri school following complaints from a local professor about children being exposed to ‘shocking material’.
“Ockler's novel, which tells of a girl's summer romance as she attempts to get over the death of her first love a year earlier, is being removed from the school curriculum and library in Republic, Missouri, along with Kurt Vonnegut's classic novel Slaughterhouse-Five. The ban follows a complaint from Wesley Scroggins, a professor at Missouri State University, who wrote in a column for a local paper last year claiming that Vonnegut's novel ‘contains so much profane language, it would make a sailor blush with shame’.”
Yes, in 2011, a professor leads the banning of Vonnegut’s classic:
“In English, children are also required to read a book called "Slaughterhouse Five." This is a book that contains so much profane language, it would make a sailor blush with shame. The ‘f word’ is plastered on almost every other page. The content ranges from naked men and women in cages together so that others can watch them having sex to God telling people that they better not mess with his loser, bum of a son, named Jesus Christ.”
I suspect no words can contradict these misguided claims better than what Vonnegut wrote in 1973 when his same novel was being tossed in an oven, an act that can be seen only as a horrifying irony:
“If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.”
And it is with this that I agree with Vonnegut—although I remain, like Thoreau, skeptical that we deserve the freedom we claim to cherish.
No, we are not freedom loving and kind people, we Americans. Writers are rightfully admonished to avoid clichés like the plague, but actions do speak louder than words: Each time we ban a book, pull from the shelves any work in order to cleanse the world a child might encounter, we are admitting that banning books is the American Way.
So it goes. . .