Stop Banning History

On January 10, a school board in McMinn, Tennessee voted unanimously to remove the graphic novel “Maus” from their school curriculum. “Maus” is a non-fiction account of the Holocaust by Art Spiegelman, who tells the story of his father, a Jewish man living in Poland during World War II. This is not the first book that has been banned, and it will not be the last, but the banning of “Maus” highlights where our education system is going if we decide to continue down this path. The book was supposedly banned from the school’s eighth grade curriculum for containing swear words and a naked illustration. “Maus” is a graphic novel where all the people are drawn as different kinds of animals. The Jewish people are mice, and the Nazis are cats. This school board banned a book over eight swear words and a drawing of a partially nude mouse. I have a hard time believing that.

Although the school board voted on January 10, the news broke a few days before International Holocaust Remembrance Day, (January 27), which I find rather telling. They didn’t ban “Maus” for a handful of “bad words” or a picture of a mouse with no clothes on (which is a pretty terrible reason, given this book was going to be read in an eighth grade classroom). They banned “Maus” because they do not want history taught in a way that makes children uncomfortable. They would rather shove atrocities under the rug than acknowledge or teach the truth in a way that will foster change. 

One board member, Tony Allman, went as far as to say, “We don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff. It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy,” according to the meeting minutes. Well, that’s what the Holocaust is about. It’s about fear, panic, cruelty, pain, and death. It’s about millions of people, including children, sent to concentration camps and murdered. The educational system is not expected to “promote” genocide, it is expected to teach it. 

To truly understand the horror of the Holocaust, you have to be horrified. You need to understand that the Holocaust is more than just a list of unfathomable numbers. It is more than six million Jewish people, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Poles, Roma, and political and religious opponents killed. We need to learn about how it affected individuals, the generational trauma that has followed into the present, the stories of all these people who were put through the unthinkable. The whole point of learning history is so that we will not repeat our mistakes. If we are never taught our mistakes, or even worse, if we are never taught they were mistakes at all, then how are we expected to change? 

Art Spiegelman, the author, said to CNN that “‘Maus’ has played a vital role in educating about the Holocaust through sharing detailed and personal experiences of victims and survivors.” That is exactly what “Maus” did for me when I read it a few years ago. I’m not Jewish, and sometimes it can be hard for an outsider to truly understand the magnitude of something as terrible as the Holocaust. “Maus” helped me understand the Holocaust on a deeply personal level that transformed the event from a list of unthinking, unfeeling numbers into a story that made me uncomfortable. Horrified. I learned more about the Holocaust through this book than I ever could by memorizing important dates and figures, and that’s why it’s so important to use books like “Maus” to teach history. 

All of this reminds me of a law recently passed in Florida that prohibits schools from making people feel ‘discomfort’ or ‘guilt’ based on their race, sex, gender, or place of origin when learning (about racism, sexism, gender discrimination, xenophobia, and colonialism). The people who promote these laws or ban important books claim to be doing it for the good of the kids. They say that they’re protecting children and that there is no need for young people to learn these horrific events, even though they are still shaping the present.

If they truly cared about the future generation, though, they would encourage the teaching of all history, not just the history that makes them feel proud or supports their opinions. Education is about confronting all truths, including those that are uncomfortable. And frankly, if students aren’t uncomfortable when taught about the Holocaust, slavery, and other atrocious events, then it’s not being taught right. If we remove all the history that made someone, somewhere uncomfortable, then we’d be removing the most important parts of history, because these pieces of the past stick with us. It’s only by realizing how terrible something is that we can create a future where it won’t ever happen again.