By Riley Donovan

Many Canadians have heard of the scandal back in September involving the Peel District School Board (PDSB) decision to remove books published before 2008 from school libraries.

What made this particularly shocking was the immense scope: one book-loving Erindale Secondary School student told the CBC that over half the collection in the school’s library was removed.

Canadians across the country were also baffled by the arbitrary cut-off date of 2008 – which meant the throwing out of all 19th and 20th century literary classics, but also popular recent series like Harry Potter and the Hunger Games.

This surreal incident is part of a larger trend of censoring books deemed offensive or outdated.

In British Columbia, the Surrey school district has removed Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men from the recommended reading list – teachers in this district wishing to teach these two literary classics will need special permission from a principal.

To Kill a Mockingbird is guilty of being a “white saviour trope”, and Of Mice and Men contains “ableist language”.

The Toronto Catholic school board recently passed a policy banning the assigning of books containing racial slurs against black people – with a small carve-out for books written by black authors.

This ban includes such timeless classics as To Kill A Mockingbird (published in 1960), Lord of The Flies (1954), Gone With The Wind (1936), Heart of Darkness (1899), Of Mice and Men (1937), and The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn (1884).

These classics have never been out of print because reviewers and readers alike have long been entranced by their timeless stories of love and betrayal, suffering and joy, war, and peace.

To be sure, the authors conveyed their own distinctive view of the world and human nature using the language of their time period.

If you rewatch old episodes of the TV series Cheers, the jokes and phrasing will make you feel like you are looking in on another world entirely.

This is because, in effect, you are. As L.P. Hartley wrote in his 1953 novel The Go-Between (has that one been banned yet?): “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”.

Cheers first ran in 1982. Should we really be surprised, then, if some of the phrasing in Gone With The Wind – published in 1936 – takes us aback in 2024?

In 2022, the Upper Canada District School Board (UCDSB) banned Agatha Christie’s famous mystery novel And Then There Were None from classrooms, apparently due to language denigrating a Jewish character.

At the time, a spokesperson for the UCDSB made this startling statement in defence of the ban: “The text was first published around 1939 and is no longer relevant or engaging to students”.

The spokesperson went on to say that the district works to ensure that it is “offering fresh, engaging, timely and relatable materials to students”.

Therein lies the underlying problem with the book banning craze: a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of some school boards of the role that schools should play in society.

Students have plenty of ability to find “fresh, engaging, timely and relatable materials” on TikTok and in conversations with their friends.

The role of schools is to provide students with interesting, edifying, and timeless material with which to challenge themselves.

Students do not have to agree with the books or essays they read in school, but in reading them they will gain the written and rhetorical skills needed to logically articulate their own positions.

Having read most of the literary classics currently on the chopping block, I can say with certainty that the occasional use of language now considered shocking or distasteful does not obscure their value or their message.

The policy of censorship employed by many school boards lacks historical nuance and charity, and deprives students of the joy of reading some of the best literature ever written.

(Riley Donovan is a B.C. journalist and founder of the independent publication Dominion Review (dominionreview.ca).