The Truth About Book 'Banning' in Tennessee | Opinion

It was just about 100 years ago that the good people of Dayton, Tennessee, decided to put Charles Darwin's theories on trial. The resulting court case, which famed journalist H.L. Mencken named "the monkey trial," proved so embarrassing for evangelical Christians throughout the South that they more or less withdrew from the public life of the nation for nearly six decades.

The trial—and its subsequent depiction on stage and screen in Inherit the Wind—did much to create the impression that white, religious-minded American southerners are, as a writer for The Washington Post once put it, "largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command."

It's a libel that stuck, and which the media glitterati trot out whenever they can. And they've been doing so abundantly ever since the school board of McMinn County, Tennessee—located just 37 minutes east by car from Dayton—voted 10-0 to withdraw Maus, a Pulitzer-prize winning graphic novel about the Holocaust that uses mice as stand-ins for the Jews, from the 8th-grade language arts curriculum.

Headlines from New York to California have attacked the move, depicting it as the act of small minds and bigoted people who object to teaching children about the Holocaust.

Book banning is bad. There's little disagreement on that. It shouldn't happen, especially in a country that values freedom of expression as much as we do. But that's not what happened here. Maus has not been banned in McMinn County. It's still in the public libraries and can be purchased online or in any brick-and-mortar bookstore that's still standing. People are still free to read it—even if they're in the 8th grade.

Maus book
This photo taken in Los Angeles, California on January 27, 2022 shows the cover of the graphic novel "Maus" by Art Spiegelman. - A school board in Tennessee has added to a surge in book bans by conservatives with an order to remove the award-winning 1986 graphic novel on the Holocaust, "Maus," from local student libraries. Author Art Spiegelman told CNN on January 27 -- coincidentally International Holocaust Remembrance Day -- that the ban of his book for crude language was "myopic" and represents a "bigger and stupider" problem than any with his specific work. MARO SIRANOSIAN/AFP/Getty Images

More likely than not, those who are calling the school board's action "book banning" are trying to divert attention from the real issue, which we saw play out in the 2021 Virginia governor's race: who shall control the public schools? The parents or the education establishment?

Parents have the right to influence what their children are taught. They do not surrender authority over what their kids learn to public schools just because they choose to enroll them in one. Some may conclude, as appears to be the case in McMinn County, that children in the 8th grade may not be socially or emotionally mature enough to handle a book like Maus—which features both nudity and profanity—appropriately. Using Maus as a teaching tool for children at that age may pervert their impression of the Holocaust rather than awaken them to its horrors.

The best people to make that judgment call are parents. They should be able to take an active role in what their children are taught. That's freedom. No one should devolve the responsibility for their children's education to the kind of narrow-minded thinkers who've been caught on camera trashing America and the ideals that made the nation great in the first place.

Unlike the monkey trial, this is a serious issue. John Scopes was hired to teach biology specifically to teach Darwin's theories. He knew he was violating state law and did so at the behest of the town leaders, who welcomed the economic activity and notoriety that descended upon Dayton once the case went to trial, and by the American Civil Liberties Union, which placed ads in Tennessee papers seeking parties interested in testing the law at issue before the bar. The ensuing circus they got was just what they wanted.

That doesn't appear to be the case in McMinn. I'm not sure whether the school board's conclusions about the appropriateness of Maus for 8th graders are correct. But I'm willing to defend their right to decide it's not appropriate, and to pull the book from the curriculum. Contrary to what you might have read here and there over the last few days, that's the American way.

Newsweek contributing editor Peter Roff has written extensively about politics and the American experience for U.S. News and World Report, United Press International, and other publications. He can be reached by email at RoffColumns@GMAIL.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.