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Flannery O’Connor on the Banning of Books in High Schools

One of my favorite short essays by Flannery O’Connor is a piece called “Total Effect and the Eighth Grade,” found in the posthumous collection entitled Mystery and Manners.  In this little four-page piece, O’Connor offers a Catholic artist’s perspective on a familiar problem: schools assigning “offensive” books to students.  (Her own works were once infamously banned in schools--by a Catholic bishop in Louisiana in 2000.) 

Writing in 1963, she sets the scene as follows:

In two recent instances in Georgia, parents have objected to their eighth and ninth grade children’s reading assignments in modern fiction.  This seems to happen with some regularity in cases throughout the country.  The unwitting parent picks up his child’s book, glances through it, comes upon passages of erotic detail or profanity and takes off at once to complain to the school board.

This issue always seems to bring out intense sentiment on both sides.  Clear and rational thought, never in abundant supply amongst us sinners, is easily choked out by the passions triggered by arguments about banning books.  We see parents outraged by supposed assaults upon their children’s purity, undertaken by the very adults they had trusted to keep their children intellectually and morally safe; on the other side we find reflexive cries of “Censorship!  Puritanism!” and the hysteria of the school librarian-type who genuinely believes she is the only one left to protect civilization from the vandals, fanatics, and book-burners who would destroy what they haven’t even tried to read, probably because they can't. 

O’Connor’s analysis of the problem avoids both of these well-worn ruts in the road.  Her analysis is crisp and refreshing, and her proposed solution should be a model for ALL schools, or at least for Catholic schools. 

The real problem, she says, is not that the schools are assigning “dirty” books, but that they are assigning a preponderance of modern books, and that there seems to be no clear purpose behind the teaching of literature in most middle and high schools other than to try to capture the “interest” of the adolescent mind.  This principle—the idea that it is the school’s duty to excite or gratify the unformed tastes of teenagers—she calls “the devil of Educationism…the kind that can be cast out only by prayer and fasting,” and she notes with bemusement that mid-20th century America seems to be “the first age in history which has asked the child what he would tolerate learning.” 

And modern fiction is certainly well-equipped to seize the interest of the teenager: instead of long, difficult sentences with lots of subordinate clauses, unfamiliar vocabulary like “ope” and “cognizance”, and the inscrutably strange customs of the Regency-era English country aristocracy, modern fiction gives us men and women engaged in the blunt and often brutal business of modern life.   Loving, fighting, spending, stealing.  In short sentences.  Much easier.

And modern literature, even when it is first-class art, is so much more likely to be, well, dirty than the great prose and poetry of the past 500 years, which is another reason why it has the power to seize the interest of the unformed young reader:

The (modern) author has for the most part absented himself from direct participation in the work and has left the reader to make his own way amid experience…The modern novelist merges the reader in the experience; he tends to raise the passions he touches upon.

It is here that the moral problem will arise.  It is one thing for a child to read about adultery in the Bible or Anna Karenina and quite another for him to read about it in most modern fiction…modern writing involves the reader in the action with a new degree of intensity, and literary mores now permit him to be involved in any action a human being can perform. 

Great literature has always portrayed characters fornicating and killing.  What has changed is that the way the modern writer portrays such acts in literature, even a devout Catholic modern with an intense moral sense like O’Connor (she would insist: ESPECIALLY a devout Catholic modern with an intense moral sense), is graphic, explicit, a kind of total immersion in dirty deeds.   Such modern writing is strong stuff; it is not to everyone’s liking, and sometimes it can be a little TOO much to the liking of the 15-year old mind, and for the wrong reasons.  But this kind of literary technique is not ipso facto “immoral” writing, and it may be very suitable for the reader who has the moral and the literary experience to understand and appreciate it. 

But it is highly unlikely that the high school student has this moral and literary experience; the schools aren’t even trying to impart just the aesthetic education that could enable the proper understanding of 20th century fiction; they are just assigning such modern fiction to their students with no context, which is really just as preposterous as dropping calculus on a 6th grader, or taking a group of kids who have never heard anything by Bach or Mozart to hear some atonal, avant-garde recital. 

To make modern/contemporary literature the predominant or sole business of the high school English class is to commit the serious error of putting second things first; it is to deny students sight of the literary works of the past which are the only things that can help them to intelligently judge the works of the present.  Here O’Connor is concrete in her recommendations, declaring that Steinbeck should be off limits to students who haven’t read, under a teacher’s intelligent guidance, earlier American writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne or James Fenimore Cooper, but that even these books should be set aside until even earlier English novelists’ works have been read and understood. 

(She doesn’t go back further, but one could easily take her recommendations further: why not start with the Bible, Homer, and Vergil, and then work one’s way up through Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Milton?)

The proper business of the high school, O’Connor asserts, is “preparing foundations”; it is ABSOLUTELY NOT immersing young people in the already-too-familiar aesthetic tastes and moral realities of modernity; it is certainly not amusing them with exciting stories of sex and violence. 

And if the student finds that this is not to his taste?  Well, that is regrettable.  His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed. 

17 comments | Add one of your own.

  1. Cordelia

    I absolutely love this quote from the J. Bottum (Joseph Bottum, right?) article on the Bishop of Lafayette bending to pressure in banning O’Connor books:
    “Nonetheless, there is one worldly benefit we can reasonably expect from Christian faith — and when that benefit is missing, we can fairly surmise that what is calling itself Catholicism has slipped its moorings and is drifting out to sea. The worldly benefit I mean is a release from the crushing burden of worldliness, and it’s what seems to be lacking in the diocese of Lafayette.”

    Also, I loved how you turned a witty quote from O’Connor at the end of your post into a quip for your own post (which could have been her post if I may be so bold as to suggest you clear understanding of Flannery.)
    “And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.”

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  2. selke

    But one also must, to some degree, proceed from the more familiar to the less familiar and from the easier to the more difficult. We can’t expect to teach literature in chronological order, with Homer and the Bible to elementary schoolers, Augustine and Aquinas to middle-schoolers, and finally—as the culminating achievement in 12th grade— novels by O’Connor and Steinbeck. So what do we do?

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    1. April

      There are some lovely readers available, published in the late 1800′s, that utilize a writing style that prepares young children for the beautiful literature you speak of, to be read later at a more mature reading level. Home educators use them, the McGuffy Readers and the Catholic National Readers. The language and writing style is beautiful, and the levels introduce children to a classic literary writing style. By the time children reach middle and high school, they are not “bored” by the great works, nor have they been filled with the fluff books of today’s elementary education system. These books are available on Amazon and other on-line outlets.

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    2. c matt

      Another great place for youngsters to start is Aesop’s fables. There was a time when cartoon programming drew heavily from them, and actually provided tots and preschoolers a decent introduction. Most, if not all, of the stuff today is garbage.

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    3. Cordelia

      Selke, I thought I’d share a little of my own experience with my oldest children, in particular my oldest son, which I found surprising (in a really good way):

      You really can read the Bible to elementary school children and even three- and four-year-olds. First, of all, some children can already read at two or three years of age. Second, for those little ones who can’t read yet but are learning their letters and numbers and basic phonics, they still can be taught to recognize the names of books in the Bible by sight and by sounding out the first letter of words; they can be taught to search correctly for a Bible verse if you show them how each page is structured; they can learn in a simplistic way how to identify the New Testament from the Old through a traditional rhyming prayer (e.g., Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John bless this bed that I sleep on.) while simultaneously memorizing the order of the first four books of the NT (They can also be taught that these are the four Gospels); and they can be taught with the previous rhyme a simplistic way to distinguish between the New and Old Testaments.

      My oldest son had this basic lesson in the Bible, Bible verses, and a pre-school curriculum that attempted to draw my child and me into the Wisdom of the verse for the day by reading good children’s literature and poetry about reality and real life, through classical music and fine art, through experiencing nature, through numbers and shapes, through games and songs.

      As soon as my oldest son could read he was devouring Greek mythology. Why? Because my husband introduced him to it. Later, because emy husband introduced him to the universe–space, planets, the constellations, he noticed the connection between the constellations and Greek mythology. Consequently, he was even more deeply interested in stars and constellations.

      Deep into his mythology phase, I discovered a good Children’s Bible or retelling of Bible stories that reminded my son of his mythology books, he even thought that the illustration of Goliath in it looked like Hercules. He devoured these Bible stories, too. My husband and I read them to him or he read them to himself. He couldn’t put it down.

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      1. April

        I agree, wholeheartedly. One trick I used to help my children read early was to have them follow along in the Magnificat (or any good missal with mass readings) as the lector reads from the pulpit. They hear the Word ans they see it, and before long they are reading it out loud. (It also encourages active participation in the Gospel.) In Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a well-recognized Montessori catechesis program for children, it is noted that Scripture in its actual form, rather than from a children’s bible, is more valuable and fascinating to a child. Of corse this makes sense, it is God’s Word!

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  4. Andrew Wolfe

    What frosts me is local Catholic high schools assigning overtly anti-Church books like “The Chocolate Wars” to their students!

    I agree with O’Connor. The problem is NEW literature. But schools have no obligation to stock or assign books that are too hot for a teenager to handle. Certainly there have to be some options available.

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  5. Linus

    In high school ( we had Benedictine Nuns ) we were never asked to read novels. Our reading was confined to carefully selected ” readers ” filled with well written short stories or extracts from well known novels ( Lord of the World was one). And we didn’t suffer intellectually. From a class of 31 we got three PhDs, two teaching Sisters and a bunch of college graduates. Even as adults, one must be very careful about what one reads. The devil enters by the easiest door. He is basically very lazy, taking the straightest route.

    Catholics are reminded to be sober ( in all that they do) and not to have ” itching ears.” This would seem to bring into question all this emphasis on ” literature ” and entertainment in general. I don’t see how you can be a good Catholic and at the same time always on the look out for ” thrills” in entertainment, which would include reading. Some how these two seem to be mutually exclusive in my mind. The libraries are full of good wholesome, educational, informative, uplifting reading without resorting to literature which is certainly dangerous. Our object in life is to be Saints, not to be culturally acceptable. And don’t be fooled, just because an author is Catholic doesn’t mean his books are ” safe ” to read. Most of the ones I know I wouldn’t give the time of day to, because whatever they are they are not ” safe.” So why bother with them.

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    1. Mitchell B.

      Apparently, your definition of a saint is an ever watchful bore, a person deeply obsessed with their environment, singularly fixated on that right combination of aesthetic practices and observances that will make them holy. Whereas, it would seem the tradition of the Church holds that a saint is the person whose obedience to God, transformed them into the person they were Created to be.

      Many a pious saints wrote and enjoyed the good story. St. Thomas More and Blessed John Henry Newman immediately spring to mind. Piety doesn’t exclude the story-teller and fable maker, for Christ was a story teller and fable maker; and exceptionally good one at that. All of his parables of mustard seeds and talents could have been just as easily written to the New Yorker, than recounted in the Gospels.

      You say, “The libraries are full of good wholesome, educational, informative, uplifting reading”, or in other words, books whose reticence only appeals to the high browed. If Christ came to the world and taught his followers using books of science, metaphysics, and inspiration, Christianity would have died with the apostles. Now, I would not say that the books in your library are any less true than O’Connor’s, its just that your books hold none of the stamina of the fables, myths, and fairy-tales of popular appeal.

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  7. nitpicky

    One minor beef, and that is about the phrase “banning books”.

    To ban a book is to attempt to take it out of circulation, throwing books on a bonfire (symbolically), pass laws prohibiting it from being seen, and/or trying to pressure a publisher into not publishing it.

    What is done at the high school level is not “banning”. It is perfectly legitimate for the legal guardians responsible for the students to debate where, exactly, the teachers’ judgment and license ends.

    Teachers must be given a certain amount of freedom in judgment, or they cannot teach. But they cannot be given absolute freedom: it could be abused. So there will always be a line where the teacher’s license ends, and that line will always be a potential point of dispute.

    It is not “banning” a book, any more than it is “banning” calculus when you argue that calculus is not appropriate for an 8th grader.

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  8. John Peduto

    What a refreshing yet sobering reminder of where we are from her essay:
    “Ours is the first age in history which has asked the child what he would tolerate learning, but that is a part of the problem with which I am not equipped to deal. The devil of Educationism that possesses us is the kind that can be ‘cast out only by prayer and fasting.’”

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