A year ago, a Pennsylvania school board voted to ban a long list of books and other materials relating to race and social justice. Among the banned books were children’s stories about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., the autobiography of Nobel laureate and youth activist Malala Yousafzai and CNN’s “Sesame Street” town hall on racism.
The ban was recently reversed in response to widespread criticism, but it is emblematic of an ongoing campaign by state and local officials around the country to dictate how K-12 and college and university educators and students address race, history and social justice.
Legislators in at least 27 states have proposed or enacted bans on teaching critical race theory and other so-called divisive concepts, with significant penalties attached. In Texas, a school board recently suspended and then voted not to renew the contract of a popular high school principal, apparently because he declared in a letter to the community that systemic racism is “alive and well.”
A violation of free speech and academic freedom, this effort is also a deeply dangerous assault on fundamental principles of teaching and learning.
Book banning in America has a long and inglorious history, going back to the 1600s, when books deemed offensive to Christianity were publicly burned. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the most popular novel of the 19th century, was banned throughout the Confederacy for its anti-slavery themes. In 1873, Congress passed the Comstock Act, which prohibited sending “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” materials through the mail, a definition deemed broad enough to include anatomy textbooks, “anything by Oscar Wilde, and even ‘The Canterbury Tales.’”
James Joyce’s “Ulysses” was banned in the 1920s, and a host of great works of literature have subsequently been banned. Such bans are eventually seen as ill advised, even absurd, but considerable harm can be done, especially in schools, while they’re in place.
As we have argued elsewhere, at the heart of the current efforts is deep-seated disagreement “over whether and to what extent racism is embedded in American history and institutions, how racism should be acknowledged and combatted, and who bears responsibility for ongoing racial discrimination and injustice.”
Many conservative legislators, school board members and parents object to all claims that racism in America is systemic, arguing instead that it is the product of individual bias. In opposition to anti-racist programs adopted in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the social justice reckoning it prompted, conservatives have urged instead, in then-President Donald Trump’s words, a “patriotic education.”
Presenting the past or the present only and always in a favorable light does an enormous disservice to students, teachers and the truth.
In their view, teaching American history as a story of “oppression and victimhood” misrepresents the past and divides the country along racial lines. Texas’ legislation on teaching social studies, adopted in June, reflects this conservative critique. It prohibits teaching that slavery and racism are “anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.”
The United States has been, in many ways, a beacon of democracy and freedom. But presenting the past or the present only and always in a favorable light does an enormous disservice to students, teachers and the truth.
How can history teachers present the three-fifths clause of the U.S. Constitution, slavery, the Civil War, de jure and de facto segregation or racial disparities in housing and education without considering issues of systemic racism?
How can English teachers discuss Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain” or Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” without considering race and social justice? Should discussions of the Civil Rights bills of 1964 and 1965, George Wallace and current debates about voter suppression be banished from political science and civics classes?
Good teaching demands subject matter expertise, the ability to distinguish facts from interpretations — while analyzing the relationship between them — and a willingness to present a wide range of views on controversial subjects.
Teachers should be able to exercise their professional judgment on how best to present challenging material, without fearing that open discussion will endanger their jobs or lead to civil or criminal penalties.
And students will learn best how to think critically; construct, critique and defend arguments; and develop their intellectual, social and moral faculties when they grapple with difficult subjects in age-appropriate ways.
When school boards or legislators with little or no subject matter or pedagogical expertise ban books or direct how certain subjects should be taught, education is impoverished, and everyone loses. This principle applies without regard to the political basis for censorship. While, at the moment, pressures are coming principally from the right, educators also face pressures from the left. Among the ten most frequently challenged books of 2020 were Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” both deemed offensive for their inclusion of racial slurs and racist stereotypes.
It’s understandable that politicians and parents want to weigh in, but decisions about what to teach and how to teach it should be left to the professionals.
David Wippman is the president of Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Glenn Altschuler is a professor of American Studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.