Should We Stop the Meaningful Exchange of Ideas?

By: Jeff Nazzaro

When J. Ryan Hoague, who taught AP English Literature for nearly three decades at Temple City High School and still serves as an AP Exam Scorer, delivers AP Summer Institute seminars this year, one of the topics he plans to engage in with them is that of censorship—the recent trend toward the banning of certain concepts and books from K-12 classrooms.

“One thing censorship does is inspire fear in teachers. They may become reluctant to discuss sensitive, yet critically important, topics because doing so could compromise their position or even end their career,” Ryan said before reflecting on the overall academic freedom and support he felt in teaching his entire career at the same Southern California public school.

“One thing censorship does is inspire fear in teachers.”

Ryan is quick to point out that AP English Literature teachers do not work from required reading lists (which might be negatively impacted by current or pending legislation), but he personally bristles at the idea that certain concepts tied to race or sexual orientation, or books associated with them, should somehow be off limits in the classroom, something that seems to be more and more to be the case.

Going back to the beginning of 2021, an ever-growing spate of educational gag orders—state laws prohibiting the discussion of certain topics related to race, politics, sexual orientation, and gender identity—have been proposed, discussed, voted on, and implemented across the United States. According to PEN America, in fact, as of January of this year, 122 such bills were introduced in 33 different states, with 12 enacted as law. Not surprisingly, while most of those bills were introduced in Republican-controlled state legislatures, in places like California, where Democrats hold the reins of power, some local school boards have taken the initiative to ban the teaching of what some are labelling “divisive concepts.”

“Teachers may become reluctant to discuss sensitive, yet critically important, topics because doing so could compromise their position or even end their career.”

That happened recently, when the trustees of Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District voted 3–2 to bar any educational framework that uses Critical Race Theory (CRT), by their definition anything that teaches students that the U.S. is fundamentally or systemically racist.

For Ryan, such bans make little sense because CRT is something that is usually introduced as part of graduate and law school theoretical frameworks and not taught in K-12 settings. “They pass some law banning critical race theory being taught in K-12, and it isn’t even there! I don’t think most people even understand it,” he said. “One thing that really concerns me about Critical Race Theory is that for many of the people that are most avid about banning it, it’s some kneejerk reaction. They don’t get the intent of it, and then they say, ‘Well, let’s just get rid of it.’”

AP English instructor Ryan Hoague CRT certainly, in Ryan’s experience, is not brought into high school literature discussions. “Very few high school English teachers get into complex examination of critical theory in the classroom,” he said. “Instead, they talk about themes, characters, figurative language, and analysis of the literature itself. Discussion of race and gender occurs naturally in the teaching process, but you’re not teaching Critical Race Theory. You’re not teaching a grad course. They’re 17, 18 years old. You’re talking to them about issues, but not like that.”

One novel that has come under increased scrutiny in certain locales is Beloved, which earned Toni Morrison the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was instrumental in her being awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature. It has been removed from several school curricula for its depictions of sex and violence, including instances of bestiality and infanticide. And while Ryan acknowledges the intensity of some of the material in the novel, he faults school districts for essentially throwing the literary baby out with the dirty bathwater.

“Very few high school English teachers get into complex examination of critical theory in the classroom.”

“The real problem is that too often they look at a certain passage without reading the entire book and they are willing to condemn it because of one set of lines,” he said. “This comes up a lot with the banning of various books that have LGBTQ issues. There will be some scene where there’s sexual interaction, but it’s not what the whole book is about. In Beloved, do scenes of infanticide, for example, detract from the overall message of the book or the horrors of slavery that you’re willing to kill your own children rather than allow them to proceed in that life? It’s horrific. But I think that’s the problem, that it’s so selective. More often than not, the people that are intent on banning the books have not read them. They usually don’t.”

While most objections to Beloved would seemingly come from the political right, Ryan recalled criticism of another masterpiece from a Nobel laureate, California’s John Steinbeck, which might have emanated from both directions simultaneously. Of Mice and Men was challenged, Ryan reported, on the basis of its depiction of people with special needs through the character Lennie and his well-known euthanasia by George at the novella’s climax. When asked about the bowdlerized version of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, scrubbed of Mark Twain’s 221 uses of the N-word, Ryan sided with the original.

“Literature should be disturbing at times.”

“Literature should be disturbing at times,” he said. “It’s meant to provoke thought and a meaningful exchange of ideas, and if you try to sugarcoat it or dilute it like that, you’re destroying something fundamental about it. And if you start banning the N-word in every piece of literature that’s ever been published, well, then don’t read Hemingway or Faulkner. If we don’t talk about issues, it doesn’t mean that the issues don’t exist. And if we can’t have a meaningful dialogue about things that matter, how can we hope for any resolution? This is something I believe to my core.”

As a teacher, Ryan favors a discussion-based classroom where themes and issues within works of literature are explored along with whatever arises organically. He’s very careful, however, about not deriding particular political parties, candidates, or ideas—beyond extremes of hate and racism. It’s part of a common pedagogical playbook, and one that most educators probably agree doesn’t require intervention by state legislatures and local school boards.

“One thing that’s getting lost in our country that I’m really concerned about is a loss of civility and of decorum,” Ryan said. “I think a skilled teacher can talk about very difficult subjects in a diplomatic way without resorting to name-calling. But unfortunately, some people are not following that path.”

For Ryan, any assault on books, any attempt to limit good literature that students might be interested in is misguided, especially now when students read less and have more exposure to sex and violence through social media and video games.

“The overarching point I want to make is that what we need is to value the basic humanity of the other.”

“Some want to ban a book that has scenes of violence or sexuality—even just one scene—and yet who’s watching what teens are exposed to on social media or in their video games?” he said. “And it’s often far more violent or sexual than anything that’s likely to appear in a book and it’s going to affect them more, I think, in terms of their brain, because of the visual impact.”

At stake in this time of flux and strife in U.S. history, is a chance for student thinking and perspectives to be expanded by exposure to good literature as a counterbalance to the limitations enforced by the polarizing echo chambers of mainstream and social media. For Ryan, that means fostering a more comprehensive view of our society and the different people in it.

“The overarching point I want to make is that what we need is to value the basic humanity of the other,” he said. “We need to try to understand their situation. For example, I don’t know what it’s like to live in poverty, but I want to understand the situation of people that do. I’m willing to talk to anybody. I sometimes talk to homeless people. A lot of people don’t do that. You don’t know why they’re living on the street. Something probably happened in their life—perhaps the loss of a job, a death in the family, mental illness, yet we rarely ask the question or listen to their story.

“And books, I think, expand that range of experience. If you live in some tiny little town where everybody’s white, how are you going to learn about people of other races and perspectives? Reading well-written literature provides crucial insights into the lives of others. If you’re exposed exclusively through media and film, you might think that the majority of African Americans are gangsters or hookers, or other ugly stereotypes of other races or of the LGBTQ+ community. But if you sit down and talk with someone for any appreciable amount of time, you’re going to find out you have something in common. I’ve done it thousands of times. I consistently try to find common ground with everyone.”