Vail Daily column: Let’s ban book banning

Jack Van Ens
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Jack Van Ens

Thought police ban books as “objectionable” if such volumes don’t rubberstamp their convictions. Is this happening in Jefferson County outside Denver? Jeffco school board’s GOP conservative majority wants to ban a nationally approved Advance Placement U.S. history curriculum.

The board’s majority aims to introduce more patriotism into college-credit U.S. history courses. After appointing a curriculum review committee, they intend to take directions from the tea party platform, which mandates local control of school curricula. The review committee would select literature that promotes patriotism, advances free-market economics and mutes protests in our nation’s past.

Banning books from the current curriculum is supported by Americans for Prosperity-Colorado, affiliated with the right-wing Koch Brothers family foundations. Dustin Zvonek, the group’s director, penned an op-ed last April saluting the Jeffco board’s election results as an “exciting and hopeful moment for the country and the school district.”

Conservatives like to read U.S. history from the top-down by studying leaders who economically succeed. Reading this same history from the bottom-up records the plight of the down-and-outs. Women, immigrants and slaves often didn’t make it to the top.

The conservative Jeffco school board members don’t realize the dangers of hyping history for the winners. They ignore protest movements. GOP-endorsed views on history texts are rammed through. History becomes an exercise in adulation for those who made it to the top of the economic heap.

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A biblical sage lamented “of the making of many books there is no end” (Ecclesiastes 11:12). The school board’s majority wants to cull books that correct their biases and replace them with propaganda that pats the U.S. on the back. Isn’t it ironic that this tea party’s agenda prohibits students from learning that the original tea party in Boston Harbor protested British taxes?

The New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni questions how book banning enhances minds and deepens balanced education. He asks, “Isn’t education supposed to provoke, disrupt, challenge the paradigms that young people have consciously embraced and attack the prejudices that they have unconsciously absorbed?”

“Isn’t upset a necessary part of that equation,” questions Bruni. “And if children are lucky enough to be ignorant of the world’s ugliness, aren’t books the rightful engines of enlightenment, and aren’t classrooms the perfect theaters for it?”

Jeffco’s GOP school board majority want this stage to go dark.

Their recent actions are similar to political conservatives’ contempt for some books in Thomas Jefferson’s library. At the close of the War of 1812, the British torched the Capitol which housed the congressional library. Congressional representatives approached Jefferson, inquiring whether he would sell his 6,000-plus library books to them.

Colonial conservatives were irked when they read the listing of books. Jefferson had the audacity to acquire a copy of the Koran. His literary holdings included several volumes from French atheists, such as Voltaire. Jefferson’s collection included religious books that denied miracles and questioned Christ’s divinity. Conservatives branded Jefferson an infidel. After the book banning fever subsided, Congress in 1815 paid Jefferson $23,950 for 6,487 books.

In the 1970s, religious fundamentalists pruned books from public school history classes. Their tired arguments are still voiced today. Some books questioned our nation’s achievements, such as Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” (1970). Others challenged our U.S. legal institutions, such as Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960). Still more disputed American military jingoism with its divine sanction of books favoring the Vietnam War.

During the 1970s, book banners unfurled at the Texas State Board of Education a 4-foot-long “scroll of shame,” comprised of unacceptable books. They tarnished the literary reputation of a John Steinbeck’s classic “Grapes of Wrath” as “pornographic, filthy, and dirty.” Its story allegedly tainted red-white-and-blue free-market patriotism with its account of wealthy farm owners exploiting migrant workers.

1970s conservatives wanted students to study U. S. history that didn’t recognize the United Nations or supported FDR’s New Deal. America must be depicted as God’s chosen nation, avoiding Lincoln’s corrective that, because of our failures, the U.S. is “God’s almost-chosen nation.” Conservatives regarded our founders as born-again Christians. However, presidents Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe were not.

This is absurd history. Agreeing with a right-wing political agenda leads to historical fiction — a sugar-coated recitation of American myths.

Do we want such mistakes repeated in our schools? “In telling the story of the American political experience, we must insist on the honest search for truth; we must permit no comfortable self-deception or evasion, no seeking of scape-goats,” writes retired Yale University historian Donald Kagan.

Let’s ban book banning.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.the

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