Over 20 years ago, an academic colleague of mine pondered the wisdom of social consumption with undergraduate students. It would be good, he thought, for young adults, newly independent of parental and school norms that previously held them back, to see and model moderate drinking in a social environment. Better to present an updated version of adult restraint than to cut teenage students completely loose to drink without limits.
While such an idea may have merit, any college professor who does so today risks unemployment tomorrow.
The current debates on ban books and teach the so-called critical race theory have a similar feeling. Specifically, outlawing books and banishing material even loosely attached to obliquely understood CRT might leave young minds more, not less, sensitive to the very things that worry opponents of these ideas. Here’s why:
In many of his books, Dan Siegel, professor of psychiatry at UCLA clearly shows that the adolescent brain (early teens to mid-twenties) undergoes amazing neurological restructuring. And the first, and perhaps most significant, change is when the adolescent’s brain rewires itself to turn away from, even reject, the patterns of order and authority that constrain that adolescent, all in an effort to become an independent adult.
In other words, that rebellion that so many of us felt as teenagers…it’s normal, even to be expected. The challenge for parents, educators and society at large is to harness the energy released in these developing brains and shape it for productive use, for the adolescent and the rest of society. .
So what does all this have to do with banned books and ideas? At least three important things.
First the banning something can just make it even more appealing to the teenage brain looking for ways to revolt against the order imposed by the very people this teenager is trying to separate from.
From the Garden, the temptation of the forbidden has always proved difficult to overcome. This is no less the case when it comes to reading or viewing those things that society is trying to ban today.
Second, the quality of our civic life is also at stake. When we exclude certain elements and ideas, we lose the opportunity to engage and refute them more fruitfully and vigorously. John Stuart Mill, among others, reminds us how much a “market of ideasis. He writes:
The particular evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it robs the human race… If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the possibility of exchanging error for truth: if it is wrong, they lose the clearer perception of truth produced by its collision with error.
This means that it is better to engage the ideas we don’t like and refute them with better ideas and clearer understanding than to suppress them.
Third, by banning ideas, we also risk undermining trust in the very institutions – like schools – that we seek to strengthen. When a young mind encounters the banned material, unrelated to a serious intellectual engagement with those ideas, that young mind will engage both the material and a question about why it was banned in the first place. If they are inclined towards the newly discovered idea, they will likely see the institutional effort to prevent them from doing so as burdensome and oppressive – both to the ideas and to themselves, as they now embrace an illicit idea.
In the digital age, saturated with all kinds of questionable material, teenagers and adults alike can and will find all kinds of content that certain parts of society will find distasteful.
So banning books or ideas could be a wild ride anyway. Instead, deeper and rigorous engagement with ideas we don’t like — including the ability to refute and refute them — would be a better way forward.
Better for people and better for the community.
I’ll drink to that!
Andrew K. Milton teaches 8th grade English at DuPont, WA. A former professor of political science in several colleges in the region, he is also the author of The Normal Accident Theory of Education.