Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Read a banned book! Or, why I love to teach "Mein Kampf".

This week is Banned Books Week, which I think is one of the more awesome things the American Library Association does. For those of you who haven’t noticed, I have very little tolerance for censorship, except in obvious and carefully limited forms (translation: if you make my three-year-old niece watch an R-rated movie, I will hurt you, but I fully support your right to make and watch that movie if you so choose).

I grew up in an … interesting reading environment. My parents were extremely permissive; they allowed me to read anything I liked as long as I didn’t repeat any bad words I learned or have nightmares about what I read (well, I think they were okay with nightmares as long as I didn’t wake them up in the process). However, I went to private religious schools from preschool through twelfth grade, and various teachers, principals, and other authorities would periodically try to ban something in order to protect the students’ delicate sensibilities. Often the ban was religious in nature; sometimes it was just because a lot of parents complained.

Without fail, whenever a teacher prohibited something, I would track down a copy and at least read the cover blurb. If it sounded interesting, I’d read the book. (I wasn’t quite so short of things to do that I would read a banned book that sounded boring just because it was banned. But being banned did make it less boring, of course …) I learned a lot that way. First and foremost, I learned that banned books can be just as dull as the regular kind. But I also learned that banning books because they conflict with your beliefs is not only stupid, but dangerous as well. If a mere novel can shake your faith in something, you probably shouldn’t believe that something. And if your beliefs are so fragile that they shatter under the pressure of a few words on a page, then there’s no use cherry-picking your reading material—you shouldn’t be reading at all! If you’re that easily swayed, leave the grown-up books to the grown-ups.

Reading banned books taught me that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had a lot of racist language in it, but also quite a few interesting things to say about what it means to be human, and what it means to be civilized. By age 13, I probably knew more about rape than anyone else in my class despite not being a rape victim myself, and I definitely knew more about sex tourism and the international trafficking of children, thanks to things I read that my teachers would have taken away if I hadn’t hidden them below my desk. (It really freaked out a family friend, visiting from Thailand, who was trying to find a diplomatic way to explain to a junior-high girl what went on in Bangkok.) Banned and suspect books taught me about war, and love, and laughter, and the persistence of the human spirit. They also taught me dirty puns and enough folklore and mythology to get me into the subject on my own time, resulting in a folklore library that threatens to take over a section of my bookcase.

And they taught me what I believed. Sometimes they agreed with me, or I with them, and sometimes we got into the mental equivalent of screaming, hair-pulling fights, but there’s nothing like being alone with a book that disagrees with you to make you think about why you hold the convictions you do. I learned that facts can’t hurt you, at least not any more than lies can, and they can be powerful weapons in the service of truth.

All of which brings me to my single favorite lesson to teach, in any classroom, ever. Tell me I get to teach this one today and I will be happy all week.

My favorite book to teach is Mein Kampf.

Talk about a hot-button book! Just showing the cover gets a reaction from students. As soon as they notice it’s by Adolf Hitler, the questions come out. What kind of class is this? Am I some kind of crypto-Nazi? Do their parents know they’re reading this? Should their parents know they’re reading this?

I give them a section to read, a passage usually titled “On Nation and Race.” And I challenge the students to find the flaws in the author’s reasoning, if they can.

They do, of course. It’s not hard. Mein Kampf is literally a textbook example of fallacious logic—in fact, it was the textbook example of fallacious logic in my favorite rhetoric manual, which is where I got the idea. It’s one non sequitur after another, with a bit of hasty generalization and a few straw men thrown in for good measure. Once you actually read the thing, you almost want to laugh when you think that the author of this pathetic claptrap held a nation in its thrall. (Almost—it doesn’t make the Holocaust any less horrible.)

But that, of course, is the point. Most students have been told all their lives that Hitler was one of the great villains of the twentieth century, a sorcerer of words, a gifted writer and orator who could ensnare the mind and soul with only a few syllables. Most of the students I work with are genuinely afraid that the book will turn them into Nazis. But reading that selection shows them Der Fuhrer for who he really was—a pathetic loon. Students walk out of that class feeling invincible. They have slain the dragon with the sword of reason, and all they had to do was sit down and read the damn book!

So while I support the literary equivalent of warning labels—let’s not hand I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to, say, a six-year-old, no matter how precocious—I am emphatically against the banning of books. Even the bad ones have something to teach us … and often it’s something the good ones can’t.

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