116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
I recently read a quote from the author Alex Kotlowitz that made me think about attempts to limit what students read in Iowa schools:
"Empathy is central to who we are as human beings … It's what holds us together; it's what binds us. It's part of what we are as humans, but it takes some effort. It's not as if we're naturally inclined to think of ourselves as someone else. It takes a leap of imagination."
So many of our problems today seem to stem from our inability to see the world from the perspective of others, to take that leap of imagination. There are few tools more valuable in gaining that perspective than the written word. Books are the perfect springboard to empathy.
Recently proposed bills in the Iowa Legislature, if passed, would take us in the opposite direction. They purport to be a weapon in the fight against “sinister” educators who are assigning pornography to our students. This is a solution in search of a problem meant to cloak its own actual sinister intent: to provide a backdoor mechanism for banning books and punishing schools and educators for giving access to ideas and concepts some find objectionable.
The handful of books in question are highly lauded works of art, and thus fall outside the state’s definition of pornography as being “material, taken as a whole, [which] lacks serious literary, scientific, political, or artistic value.” Mechanisms are already in place allowing parents to review materials available to their students and to request alternatives to materials they find objectionable.
What these books have in common is not pornographic content, but stories about people of different colors, races, religions, sexual orientations, and gender identities, people living normal lives — save for their constant fights against the bigotry and hatred of people who lack empathy.
It is easier to demonize, marginalize and demean people we do not know. There is truth to the adage about walking a mile in someone’s shoes. Ideally, we do this by meeting people, talking with them, learning about their values and practices and beliefs.
That can be a challenge in a state as homogenous as Iowa. Where can we turn to fill that gap? Books like “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie, “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, or “All Boys Aren't Blue” by George M. Johnson. Each tells a story, shares an experience, that would not be familiar to the majority of Iowa teens. For those who do see themselves in these stories, the affirmation found in their pages, the knowledge that they are not alone, is powerful and can literally save lives.
When students encounter these stories in school, they are given tools to understand what they are reading. They discuss these ideas and experiences with classmates and teachers, gaining valuable context and learning how they can add this new information to their conception of who they are and what they believe.
Iowa has long been a champion of the marginalized and oppressed. The list of social justice and civil rights firsts that took place in our state is long and should be celebrated. Iowa has not been an insular state afraid of the “other,” no matter what a vocal minority would have you believe. These bills being considered by the Legislature send the wrong message, and would have disastrous results if passed into law. Taking a page from Kotlowitz, we should seek to build empathy using one of the best tools available: books.
John Kenyon is a lifelong Iowan and executive director of the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization.