When I was 10, my eye caught a curious title on my school library shelves. It was A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle. To make a long story short, I read it and fell in love with words and ideas.
Later, I learned that this splendid piece of literature has often been banned because its ideas about witchcraft may be too powerful for an impressionable child's mind. I also became vaguely aware that other highly-acclaimed books were occasionally banned in small-minded corners of the earth.
But for decades, book-banning seemed a pretty remote concept to me -- something that happened in far-away, unlit places.
No more. As I write this, book lovers are gathering in a park about 100 yards from this very same middle school (in Wyoming, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati) to protest a chilling response by the local school board to a parent's complaint about two highly-acclaimed books on the high school reading list. (The books are: The Bookseller of Kabul, by Asne Seierstad, andThe Perks Being of a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky.)
Did the board respectfully remind the parent that he could have his child work with a teacher to read something else instead? Did the board immediately show complete confidence in its teachers and librarians?
No. The board declared that the school selection process had not been properly followed (refusing to provide details), and that all that approved books will be reviewed by a special committee according to four criteria:
• The relationship to the course of study; • The uniqueness of the content that is not adequately provided in district materials; • The appropriateness of the content for the maturity and comprehension levels of the students; and, • The extent to which the content could create controversy among student, parents, and community groups.
Controversy, of course, being a negative. I checked this with the Wyoming Superindendent Dr. Gail Kist-Kline. She confirmed that if a book was found to be controversial, the principal would have to re-review it in light of its controversial nature. She also vigorously disagreed with the characterization from many that the Board is flirting with the notion of banned books. But to my eyes, and to many others, two very disturbing actions are taking place: first, the lack of support for teachers who have chosen obviously very distinguished books; second, and more importantly, the nature of a review which gives zero credence to quality and extraordinary credence to controversy.
It is, of course, entirely appropriate for a school board to investigate any parent's complaint. And I get the impression that Dr. Kist-Kline would personally be upset and even ashamed if a highly-acclaimed approved book were later un-approved. She understands that the national reputation of Wyoming's schools -- U.S. News & World Report ranked it the 50th best high school in the nation in 2009 -- would immediately and forever be tarnished. It would drop off that list faster than you can say "literature matters."
But what Dr. Kist-Kline and the Wyoming School Board don't seem to get is that a political review that gives great weight to controversy is, in itself, a profound retreat from the highest educational standards. My old Wyoming classmate Francesca (Schmid) Thomas, now president of the Parents-Teachers group for her local high school in Arizona, puts it this way:
The Board is not standing up for academic excellence, in my mind. If two parents object, how are we serving the vast majority of students if we eliminate the book from the selected readings? There are plenty of parents who have crazy ideas about what your children should hear, but that does not mean we should let them run our schools. Books need to be selected by professionally trained teachers based on their academic and intellectual merit.
A quality education requires the inclusion of controversial material, especially at the high school level, so that students can achieve their academic objectives while simultaneously becoming critical thinkers. Since state academic standards focus on broad objectives, not specific books, it is incumbent on teachers and administrators to open the eyes and minds of our students to the enormously complicated world in which we live in the context of the classroom. If public schools succumb to the pressures of vocal minorities to limit the educational experience of students, by diminishing access to materials deemed controversial by some, then we will relegate the vast majority of students in our country to a sub-standard level of education.
To have a Board of elected citizens give such weight to controversy is bad policy. It should be changed. Whenever we pit "educational merit" versus "controversy," we censor, plain and simple.
If this can happen in Wyoming, Ohio, it can happen anywhere. And consider some of the books that have been banned or challenged over the years. According to the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, 42 of the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century "have been the target of ban attempts." Here is that list, each book next to its corresponding number from the Radcliffe 100 list:
1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald 2. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger 3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck 4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee 5. The Color Purple by Alice Walker 6. Ulysses by James Joyce 7. Beloved by Toni Morrison 8. The Lord of the Flies by William Golding 9. 1984 by George Orwell 11. Lolita by Vladmir Nabokov 12. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck 15. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller 16. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley 18. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway 19. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner 20. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway 21. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad 23. Their Eyes are Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston 24. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison 25. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison 26. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell 27. Native Son by Richard Wright 28. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey 29. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut 30. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway 33. The Call of the Wild by Jack London 36. Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin 38. All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren 45. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair 48. Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence 49. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess 53. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote 55. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie 64. Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence 66. Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut 67. A Separate Peace by John Knowles 73. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs 75. Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence 80. The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer 84. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller 88. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser 97. Rabbit, Run by John Updike
Read great books. Celebrate great books. And demand that school boards everywhere celebrate them too.
Postscript: Here is the exact copy of A Wrinkle in Time that I read when I was ten. A few years ago, I made a swap with the Wyoming Middle School library: their old tattered copy for several brand new copies. It now sits on my desk, the most cherished book I own.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
The competition is fierce, the key players are billionaires, but the path—and even the destination—remains uncertain.
The race to bring driverless cars to the masses is only just beginning, but already it is a fight for the ages. The competition is fierce, secretive, and elite. It pits Apple against Google against Tesla against Uber: all titans of Silicon Valley, in many ways as enigmatic as they are revered.
As these technology giants zero in on the car industry, global automakers are being forced to dramatically rethink what it means to build a vehicle for the first time in a century. Aspects of this race evoke several pivotal moments in technological history: the construction of railroads, the dawn of electric light, the birth of the automobile, the beginning of aviation. There’s no precedent for what engineers are trying to build now, and no single blueprint for how to build it.
Without the financial support that many white families can provide, minority young people have to continually make sacrifices that set them back.
The year after my father died, I graduated from grad school, got a new job, and looked forward to saving for a down payment on my first home, a dream I had always had, but found lofty. I pulled up a blank spreadsheet and made a line item called “House Fund.”
That same week I got a call from my mom—she was struggling to pay off my dad’s funeral expenses. I looked at my “House Fund” and sighed. Then I deleted it and typed the words “Funeral Fund” instead.
My father’s passing was unexpected. And so was the financial burden that came with it.
For many Millennials of color, these sorts of trade-offs aren’t an anomaly. During key times in their lives when they should be building assets, they’re spending money on basic necessities and often helping out family. Their financial future is a rocky one, and much of it comes down to how much—or how little—assistance they receive.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
A black student posted “White Only” signs on water fountains to highlight systemic racism—and provoked an uproar.
In the middle of September, students arrived on campus at the State University of New York at Buffalo to find “White Only” and “Black Only” signs plastered near elevators, water fountains, benches, and bathrooms. It was not immediately clear who put up the signs. But they summoned an era when segregation on the basis of skin color was the law of the land.
The backlash—on campus and across social media—was swift. The incident touched off a tense debate over racism and free speech that is still unfolding more than two months after the signs were taken down.
Ashley Powell, a black graduate student, created the signs as part of a project for a class offered by the Art Department. She says that reaction was exactly the point. “The signs are a reminder that just because you can’t see racism around you doesn’t mean it’s not there,” Powell said in an interview. “I wanted people to feel something. I wanted people to realize they must confront racism and fight against it in their daily lives.”
Maya Arulpragasam is a famous rapper, singer, designer, producer, and refugee. When she was 9, her mother and siblings fled violence in Sri Lanka and came to London, and the experience was formative for her art. As she explained to The Guardian in 2005 after the release of her debut Arular, “I was a refugee because of war and now I have a voice in a time when war is the most invested thing on the planet. What I thought I should do with this record is make every refugee kid that came over after me have something to feel good about. Take everybody’s bad bits and say, ‘Actually, they’re good bits. Now whatcha gonna do?’”
That goal—to glorify people and practices that the developed world marginalizes—has been a constant in her career. Her new music video tackles it in a particularly literal and urgent way, not only by showing solidarity with refugees at a moment when they’re extremely controversial in the West, but also by posing a simple question to listeners: Whose lives do you value?
The generation has been called lazy, entitled, and narcissistic. Their bosses beg to differ.
Yes, many Millennials are still crashing on their parent’s couches. And there’s data to support the claim that they generally want more perks but less face time, and that they hope to rise quickly but don’t stick around for very long. Millennials have also been pretty vocal about their desire to have more flexible jobs and more leave time.
But does all of this mean that all Millennials are actually worse workers?
Laura Olin, a digital campaigner who ran social-media strategy for President Obama’s 2012 campaign, says that’s not been her experience. “You always hear about Millennials supposedly being entitled and needing coddling, but the ones I’ve encountered have been incredibly hard-working and recognize that they need to pay their dues.”
To solve climate change, we need to reimagine our entire relationship to the nonhuman world.
Humans were once a fairly average species of large mammals, living off the land with little effect on it. But in recent millennia, our relationship with the natural world has changed as dramatically as our perception of it.
There are now more than 7 billion people on this planet, drinking its water, eating its plants and animals, and mining its raw materials to build and power our tools. These everyday activities might seem trivial from the perspective of any one individual, but aggregated together they promise to leave lasting imprints on the Earth. Human power is now geological in scope—and if we are to avoid making a mess of this, our only home, our politics must catch up.
Making this shift will require a radical change in how we think about our relationship to the natural world. That may sound like cause for despair. After all, many people refuse to admit that environmental crises like climate change exist at all. But as Jedediah Purdy reminds us in his dazzling new book, After Nature, our relationship with the nonhuman world has proved flexible over time. People have imagined nature in a great many ways across history.
An entire industry has been built on the premise that creating gourmet meals at home is simple and effortless. But it isn’t true.
I write about food for a living. Because of this, I spend more time than the average American surrounded by cooking advice and recipes. I’m also a mother, which means more often than not, when I return from work 15 minutes before bedtime, I end up feeding my 1-year-old son squares of peanut-butter toast because there was nothing in the fridge capable of being transformed into a wholesome, homemade toddler meal in a matter of minutes. Every day, when I head to my office after a nourishing breakfast of smashed blueberries or oatmeal I found stuck to the pan, and open a glossy new cookbook, check my RSS feed, or page through a stack of magazines, I’m confronted by an impenetrable wall of unimaginable cooking projects, just sitting there pretending to be totally reasonable meals. Homemade beef barbacoa tacos. Short-rib potpie. “Weekday” French toast. Make-ahead coconut cake. They might as well be skyscraper blueprints, so improbable is the possibility that I will begin making my own nut butters, baking my own sandwich bread, or turning that fall farmer’s market bounty into jars of homemade applesauce.
The cards Overweight Haters Ltd. is handing out to passengers on the Tube aren’t just cruel; they’re ineffective.
They come every year around this time, as reliably as the chilling of the air and the preponderance of red coffee cups: the public-relations pitches, bedecked in exclamation points and cheer, offering expert tips on how to fight the holiday weight, or win the battle of the bulge, or stay svelte through New Year’s. If I had a nickel for every email in my inbox right now exhorting me to put down the pie, I’d have enough money to buy myself several more pies. Not the grocery-store brand, either. The fancy bakery kind.
‘Tis the season, in other words, to make some strangers feel bad about their bodies. Over the weekend, some people in London, purportedly from a group called Overweight Haters Ltd., took that to heart: