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Standing for enlightenment ideals at epicenter of book banning


My hometown of Clay County was recently revealed to be the most rampant book-banning county in the state of Florida, racking up 177 removals and 489 objections last school year.

Soon after the Florida Department of Education published a 16-page list of banned books last month, I was disheartened to find the literary graveyard of lost opportunities for the students in my county.

Twentieth-century masterpieces like “Beloved” and “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, “Flower for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes and “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood were erased from shelves. More recent culturally transformative novels like “Looking for Alaska” by John Green, “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini and “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah, gone. And, as I expected, books addressing race and coming-of-age sexuality, like “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and “Will Grayson, Will Grayson” by John Green and David Levithan, also found themselves in the censorship crosshairs. I concede some of the 177 banned books do appear to have sexual content that raises legitimate concerns about their age-appropriateness; however, the vast majority do not and highlight the greater trend towards anti-intellectualism masquerading as anti-pornography.

The sweeping bans come from Florida House Bill 1557 (commonly referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” law) and Florida House Bill 1467, which enables residents to lodge challenges to books in school libraries. In my county, according to Clay County District Schools spokesperson Terri Dennis, “approximately 94% of all texts that have been challenged in the district have been from one individual.”

This resident, Bruce Friedman, is a New York City transplant who has never been a student at any Clay County school. Friedman has clogged the system with 489 objections, of which the county school board approved 177 removals. The net result is one individual subjecting 38,000-plus students to a purge of any material that diverges from his puritanical vision for our schools.

Having lived in this epicenter of book banning for my entire life until graduating from high school in 2018, I can hardly profess to be surprised by this recent trend. This is a place where conservative orthodoxy has often overshadowed education. The public high school I attended was chronicled in national media as “the front line as faith and science clash” and more recently as the case example of “how a book gets banned in America.”

Growing up in Clay, I turned to literature as a source of solace and escape. Books offered me a glimpse into the broader world, tethering me to a greater understanding of humanity. By some miracle, my persistent journey of reading carried me to study at Yale and now MIT. However, many books that defined my journey are now banished for future students, a somber testament to the intellectual regression that suffocates my beloved hometown today.

As Clay County and the rest of the state of Florida grapple with notoriety for sweeping bans on books, I find myself torn between sorrow and indignation. The attempt to censor ideas is an affront to the very essence of education. It is not merely about the removal of titles from a shelf; it is an assault on enlightenment ideals and a curtailment of the intellectual horizons of future generations. The disgrace is amplified by its autocracy, with a single Clay County resident launching a one-man vendetta against intellectual freedom resulting in the erasure of hundreds of important books; a self-appointed referee of human knowledge incessantly blowing the whistle on any ideas he does not like.

The banning of books is but one facet of a larger phenomenon, a pervasive movement of anti-intellectualism and anti-enlightenment that threatens to engulf us. For example, two months ago the Florida Department of Education temporarily banned AP Psychology classes due to their decades-old content on sexual development; the department eventually reversed the decision after immense pushback.

In an era of echo chambers and ideological divides growing ever wider, we cannot afford to further erode the foundations of critical thinking and open discourse. We must remember that our strength as a society lies in our ability to engage with diverse perspectives and to challenge our own preconceptions.

As a bioengineer working to develop cures for complex diseases, I have come to appreciate the importance of considering all angles, arguments, and criticisms in tackling hard problems. Science thrives on the unrelenting study of a diversity of informed perspectives. The removal of books in Clay County is precisely antithetical to this effort and actively worsens the educational experience for its students. Moreover, it further pushes the most persecuted in society deeper into the shadows. Censorship is turning our school libraries into labyrinths, where the only way out is to develop critical thinking skills that transcend their narrow corridors.

Though currently mired in controversy, Clay County has the potential to rewrite its narrative. It can choose to prioritize the education and enlightenment of its students, equipping them with the tools necessary to engage thoughtfully with the world. The path forward is not one of erasure but of enrichment, where intellectual diversity is embraced, open dialogue is cherished, and the love of learning is nurtured.