Schools should not ban books

Mendy Robinson apparently wasn’t impressed by Banned Books Week. Less than a month before the American Library Association’s annual awareness campaign this year, Robinson filed a complaint with the Duval County, Fla., school system, questioning the appropriateness of having Harry Potter books available in school libraries. She joins other parents nationwide and some religious leaders in claiming the books’ depictions of the occult harm children and insult religious values. According to the ALA, Harry Potter stories were last year’s most frequently banned books.

Robinson is the mother of a student at, ironically, Thomas Jefferson Elementary, whose namesake famously argued, “Reason and free inquiry … will support the true religion by bringing every false one to their tribunal … They are the enemies of error, and of error only.” Apparently Ms. Robinson wasn’t impressed by that either.

The fallacy of banning books lies in the audacious presumption that one has discovered a truth so irrefutably compelling that no person should be allowed to even consider an alternative view. The 100 million Harry Potter books in print, and their place on best-seller lists, demonstrate large numbers of people see no such truth testifying against the bespectacled Hogwarts School pupil. Harry Potter’s defenders now include the Rev. Dr. Francis Bridger, a leading Anglican theologian and author of “The Spirituality of Harry Potter.” The Church of England’s Oxford diocese is also standing by Harry Potter and allowed scenes from the upcoming Harry Potter film to be shot in its cathedrals.

At the heart of the churchmen’s argument is the common sense notion that children understand the difference between fiction and nonfiction. While fiction can offer insight on the real world, it does not require its readers to see the story as anything more than entertainment. In fact, fiction’s place in the gray area between pure fantasy and reality can be useful in introducing children to the issues they will later confront. “Of Mice and Men,” another title on the ALA list of the last decade’s most-banned books, presents the web of questions tied to mental retardation, and “Bridge to Terabithia,” another often-banned title, introduces children to death in terms they can understand.

Ultimately, as Duval County Superintendent John Fryer correctly notes, parents are responsible for helping their children deal with difficult issues and books that question popular ideas. “If we have material that is objectionable, parents should make it known to their kids that they don’t want them reading it,” Fryer said. “That’s preferable over having to restrict access for all students.”

The lives today’s schoolchildren will live will be too complex and involve too many personal and ethical dilemmas for us to allow a handful of extremists to keep every child away from important issues and ideas.