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Comprehensive experience and advanced methodologies


Aug 08, 2023

Banned books are visible at the Central Library, a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library system, in New York City on Thursday, July 7, 2022. The books are banned in several public schools and libraries in the U.S., but young people can read digital versions from anywhere through the library. The Brooklyn Public Library offers free membership to anyone in the U.S. aged 13 to 21 who wants to check out and read books digitally in response to the nationwide wave of book censorship and restrictions.

Sadly, in the past few months we have witnessed several states and local communities invoking extreme rules and passing draconian legislation restricting and outlawing what can be read or taught in schools.

I continue to be amazed that there are those who, based on their own personal choices and political ideology, want to ban books for all students — not just their own children — enrolled in public schools. Simply put, what advocates of book banning are suggesting is that they don’t want students to step inside someone’s shoes; they don’t want students seeing the world through oppressed or marginalized eyes and how that has the capacity to change one’s life, often in a potentially positive way.

Banning books prevents understanding, empathy and solidarity — outcomes to which most of us aspire when not responding to siloed and recalcitrant political beliefs in a knee-jerk manner. As a scholar of rhetoric, I am intrigued by book banning debates in Texas, Florida and many other states.

Book banning discourse reminds me of a concept in rhetoric about which I conducted research and taught in my undergraduate Argumentation and Advocacy course at The University of Texas at Austin for more than 40 years, namely "self-risk." Self-risk is the idea that to engage in genuine argument we contractually agree and at least privately acknowledge at the outset of debate a willingness to be open to changing or modifying our beliefs, even if persuasion is not the actual result. Moreover, “self-risk,” unlike “public risk,” does not require us to admit to others when an argument actually changes our mind.

To engage in self-risk one at least momentarily must stand inside the shoes of their interlocutors and temporarily view the world as they do. This is necessary in order to thoughtfully and logically reflect on the merits and validity of opposing positions. In short, self-risk is the opposite of dogma and promotes the human virtues of empathy, understanding and solidarity.

My students learned that self-risk is not some idealistic process limited to the ivory tower. It is not a “prescribed” way for people to engage one another argumentatively, nor is it a politically motivated tool designed by faculty to convert students. What they realized is that self-risk “describes” something all of us actually do on subjects of great importance to us and for which there are consequences — that self-risk is an optimal way to make the best decisions humanly possible and avoid costly mistakes.

The bottom line: We must wonder how anyone who believes in rational argument and concerned about education could oppose these virtues by dogmatically and habitually insisting that banning books is desirable.

Richard Cherwitz is an Ernest A. Sharpe Centennial professor emeritus at the Moody College of Communication and founding director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin.

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