David Wippman.

As book bans increase at a growing rate across the nation, President David Wippman and his co-author Cornell Professor Emeritus Glenn Altschuler traced the history of these bans in an essay published in The Hill on Jan. 21. “The instructive history of book bans” began with the observation, “Book banning campaigns didn’t work, wasted time and money, upended the lives of innocent people and, most important, erased aspects of the past and of contemporary human experience.” The essay detailed recent bans in Texas, Florida, and Georgia and legal challenges to others in Iowa and Illinois.

Beginning in the 1600s, the authors note that banning campaigns, although “nasty and brutish,” were relatively short. “In 1637, ‘The New English Canaan,’ Thomas Morton’s ‘withering critique’ of Puritan life, was banned by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. That ban turned an otherwise forgettable work into an ‘anti-authoritarian icon.’”

Jumping centuries, the authors continued. “In the 1870s, Anthony Comstock, ‘a carping moralist government official,’ persuaded Congress to prohibit the dissemination of ‘obscene’ or ‘immoral’ materials through the mail. The law’s vague language allowed overly zealous bureaucrats to stop everything from anatomy textbooks to ‘The Canterbury Tales.’” 

And more recently, “In 1982, after a school board in New York State yanked books considered ‘anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy,’ the Supreme Court ruled that “’local school boards may not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.’”

The authors concluded with this sentiment, “In time, today’s book bans will likely appear as pointless, harmful and misguided as those of the past. … Overwhelmingly, educators take great care to select material that is age-appropriate, meets professional standards and furthers students’ education.” 

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