I was mortified.
It was 1968 and my parents and I sat in the principal’s office. I didn’t do anything wrong. I was just reading a class-assigned book — One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. My mother was upset with the language in the book.
So there we sat. I looked down. Dad shifted in the chair. Mom pointed her gyrating finger at the principal. The principal nodded. In the end, I was assigned another book, but I read Ken Kesey’s book anyway. Why? Because once something is forbidden, it becomes desirable. It was a sad story but the novel’s “language” was appropriate because it expressed the anger and frustration of the characters. The novel explored life in a mental institution but became a metaphor for society. It challenged current thinking. I wasn’t any worse for reading it.
That was when I learned that ideas were dangerous. And if ideas in books were dangerous enough to prompt a visit to the principal’s office then I wanted to know more. I wasn’t rebellious, just curious. I was fourteen and eager to learn but not always eager to be taught.
But 1968 was a time of turbulent transitions. Stability seemed threatened every day by those pushing for recognition and change. It was a period where long-simmering problems came to a head. But then acceptance is often slow.
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New ideas challenge tradition
Stravinsky debuted The Rite of Spring in 1913 in Paris — and it was disastrous. The audience was not prepared to be so challenged. The ballet storyline, the dancing and the music was like nothing they had seen or heard. The piece was harsh to traditionalists but it was exciting for modernists. Some in the audience loudly voiced their displeasure during the performance which led to a near riot between the factions. Police arrived and removed some patrons but the performance never stopped.
When The Rite of Spring was performed a year later, it was met with high critical acclaim and audience satisfaction. Today it is considered an important moment in the development of music. Why? The audience was ready for the challenge.
This simple idea of putting wheels on luggage was invented by Bernard D. Sadow around 1970 and refined by Robert Plath in the 1980s. But here’s the interesting part. This invention was met with resistance because it challenged the conventional wisdom of travel. Men were reluctant to adopt it because men carried their bags. Now wheels are pretty universal and we wonder how we ever traveled without them. Every new idea is met with resistance.
A school in Mississippi pulled the 1960 Pulitzer Prize winner To Kill a Mockingbird from its reading list because the novel made some people uncomfortable. A close reading reveals that rich Southern prose slowly peels back the thin veneer of our culture to reveal the ugly sins of our culture. The discomfort is revealing, tragic and necessary for growth. Banning that or any book only attracts attention as well as curious readers. Ideas cannot be banned.
Today we wonder what the ruckus was all about. Stravinsky’s music is beautiful, traveling is more convenient, and the stories we tell can be sad, beautiful, inspiring and discomforting. Banning a book, rejecting a convenience or fighting over art will not kill an idea. A ban cannot destroy our creative nature or our need to question or our need to know or our desire to improve what we have.
It’s a tantrum.
We may not admit it, but we want to be challenged — we just don’t want to be wrong, especially publicly. We seek new forms of entertainment, foods, places, music, artists, writers, and activities. It is our nature to grow through challenge and stimulation, to experiment, to expand our horizons because we feel that to stay the same is to become stagnant.
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Banning books never works
So when I became a teacher I made it a point to address the criticisms of books head-on. I guided students through the nuances of language, situation and culture. I taught them to ask questions and to seek answers and how to question those answers.
Banning a book has never worked. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was banned for its perceived sexually charged poems. Sure Whitman lost his job but he created a masterpiece that changed American letters. Today it is part of the American canon. Banning did not work.
I will never know what prompted my parents to challenge the school. Maybe my parents did not want to lose control of their child or maybe they weren’t ready for their child to be an independent thinker or maybe they weren’t ready to let go or maybe they wanted to protect or maybe they wanted things to stay unchanged. I will never know. We never talked about it.
Chuck Keller is a retired teacher and president of the Fort Thomas Forest Conservancy. He and his wife Mary Lou live in Northern Kentucky.