Next week the American Library Association celebrates Banned Books Week. This holiday celebrates freedom of information by touting all books that have been hated at some point, by some group.
That is not an exaggeration. I encourage you to go to bannedbooksweek.org and verify.
This holiday is already at UD in the form of a Banned Books Display in the Cowan Blakely memorial Library. The display (and the holiday) is intentionally provocative, academically uninformative, odious to the liberal arts and has no place at an institution of higher education.
First, it is worth examining the display already set up in the library. The most noticeable thing about it is that the Holy Bible is placed on the same shelf as pornography. “50 Shades of Grey” sits right next to a beautifully illustrated New Testament. Right beneath that is the New York Times Bestseller “Two Boys Kissing,” the story of two 17 year-olds who attempt to break the 36 hour kissing world record. It is shameful for a Catholic institution to put the Bible on display next to extremely erotic fiction (even if it is only a KJV).
It is also extremely simple minded to say they belong in a group together because they are “banned books.” This tenuous link between “50 Shades of Grey” and the Bible is unbelievably simplistic.
Since every book has at some point been opposed by some group, saying “banned books” might as well mean “all books.” To say we should celebrate these books together, without considering why they were opposed, or even who opposed them, is shallow and unacademic.
Using the same reasoning, you could justify the display of “Mein Kampf.”
The display goes against the library’s commitment to holding “the highest standards of academic excellence and Catholic values, where students are strengthened for lives of purpose, service, and leadership,” as stated in their mission statement.
At its core, Banned Books Week is not only shallow, it is intentionally provocative. Not that being provocative is wrong per se. Being provocative in order to shock someone out of complacency is good and sometimes necessary. But to be intentionally provocative for the sake of being provocative is reprehensible.
There is no physical copy of “50 Shades of Grey” in the library. Instead its cover was deliberately printed so that it could be placed next to the Bible in the display case. I defy you to explain how that was not intentionally provocative.
Worse than being provocative, the holiday is frankly rebellious. It is a pointless rejection of any intellectual authority. This intellectual angst has no place at a school that recognizes the Catholic Church as a teaching authority.
It is also contrary to a liberal arts education.
As Dr. Hibbs explained in his inaugural address, “UD has never believed this banter about liberal arts education: that it’s not about teaching you what to think, it’s merely about teaching you how to think. It is about teaching you what to think, or at least what to think about.”
As students of the liberal arts, we trust our professors when they tell us these works are the things worth reading. That humility is essential to being a good student.
In an Article for Tower Magazine (“The Idea of Our University”), Dr. Waterman Ward expressed this well. She praises Donald and Louise Cowan for forming UD along the lines of John Henry Newman’s “The Idea of a University.” She writes, “Students… should form their imaginations by well-tested literature, with images of the noble and great before their minds. Material meant merely to stir addictive passions narrows rather than enlarges the mind.” She goes on to say, “Newman advised studying a limited literature systematically…this apparently rigid, interconnected curriculum makes flexible minds.”
At UD we should not celebrate “banned books.”
Just because a book was hated is not enough to make it venerable. Nor should we join the American Library Association in rejecting the intellectual authority of our own tradition and instructors. Rather we should read and reread the classics, meditating always on what is true, on what is good, and on what is beautiful.