In a high school English class unit called Love/Gender/Family Unit, Kathleen Reilly taught short stories by David Sedaris, Laura Lippman, Stephen King and Ernest Hemingway. But not anymore. She recently resigned, after parents demanded she remove the stories from the curriculum.

Parent Sue Ann Johnson was one of the more vocal objectors to the stories, arguing kids are being harmed:

“There is an agenda, people. Wake up,” she said. “We are desensitizing our children to violence. We’re desensitizing them to sex. We’re desensitizing them to drugs. We’re talking about the hearts and minds of the future of America.”

I can only wag my index finger of shame. This is a simple error, to suppose that exposing someone to violence/sex/drugs is the same as desensitization. Certainly desensitization is something to avoid, but would anyone say that visiting the slums in Kenya risks desensitizing students to poverty? The exposure would probably lead them to become more sensitive, perhaps even to act in positive ways on their sensitivities.

I’m reminded of Chuck Palahniuk’s defense of Fight Club, how he argued that portraying violence in all its real, mucky messiness was the best antidote for the glorified fakery in movies that leads to desensitization.

Literature is the best possible place to expose students to such things. You can’t help but think that most acts of censorship are a failure to read properly; in other words, a form of illiteracy. It’s a failure to read literature as it’s meant to be read — not as a nonfiction book advocating a particular lifestyle, but an interaction and exploration of life itself.

The National Coalition Against Censorship has also picked up the story. There’s a you-go-get-’em editorial in the local newspaper, too, from a recent graduate arguing that his alma mater should keep the short stories in the curriculum. It’s cute because it’s so winsome.

Perhaps we need some kind of Short Story Superhero that can defend against these censorship mafias. With a suit and a spiffy motto, nothing could withstand Short Story Man! He could leap tall parents in a single bound. He could cast protective webs around the banned books.

Okay, I’ll stop now.

Write Better Books.

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