Since 1990, libraries and public schools have received over 9,600 formal requests to remove books and other materials from their shelves and/or curriculum (Morales).
These requests are brought for a number of reasons, but overwhelmingly they are submitted by people who believe the subject matter is inappropriate for a public institution to provide, and in the case of public school, certainly inappropriate for children.
Public school teachers are caught between a rock and a hard place. They have a wide demographic of students that are different in many ways: race, ethnic background, and religion. Each student also has unique sensibilities of what they are or are not comfortable reading. In addition, each student has parents with the same complexities.
It would seem that the curriculum should accommodate the widest spectrum of students; to include and not offend those who might have personal objections to certain subject matter. But teachers also have a responsibility not only to cover the basic literary components of our culture but to challenge their students to think critically about complex issues and gain a more whole understanding of the world around them.
While parents should feel like they have a voice in regard to their child's education, censoring or banning books and material based solely on its perceived appropriateness for children (specifically eleventh and twelfth graders) defeats the purpose of public education in the United States.
Arguments in Favor of Censoring Books
Arguments for the censoring of books in schools are legitimate and need addressing.
One is that children should not be exposed to foul language, violence, and sexual material. Our theaters have age recommendations; music has parental advisories; and television has mature content warnings, all with the option to change the channel or turn it off. Yet a teacher can require questionable material to be read in school?
These are valid concerns of any parent. What message does it send to children to have rules against the language used and what videos are watched in the home, only to arrive at school every day and read about the very things they have been warned against?
This raises issues of parenting. A parent has a right to be involved with what their child is being exposed to and learning about. Parents raise their children in such a way that they think is best. It is wrong of the public schools to undermine the morals and values that parents have worked hard to instill.
These are valid concerns, and any teacher should expect and even welcome a parent who wants to raise objections about what exactly their child is being taught.
A parent who comes to a teacher to know more about the student curriculum is showing great parenting skills and involvement. Teachers and parents alike should be open to explanation and education of one another's concerns and reasoning. These are professional teachers after all, and they should be able to justify the selections made for their students.
As rational and civilized people, we all know the value of hearing both sides of an argument before taking a hard stance. In Areas and Issues: Children and Books, D. Broderick highlights why it is important for children to know both sides as well:
"Censorship of books and other learning resource materials sends a mixed message to students. On the one hand, we say, read; on the other, we say but don't read this, that, or the other title. A major reason we want children to become dedicated readers is so they will develop judgment, the ability to discern the good from the bad, the superior from the shoddy."
How Does Critical Thinking Fit in?
Part of a stronger moral stance is knowing that there are things out in the world that are not up to your standards. According to School: The Story of American Public Education, there are six main tenets of the school system: “To prepare children for citizenship, to cultivate a skilled workforce, to teach cultural literacy, to prepare students for college, to help students become critical thinkers, and to help students compete in a global marketplace.”
Critical thinking can be defined as the ability to break down ideas and concepts with the intention of forming your own opinion and stance on the subject. So by reading questionable or objectionable material, a student is practicing the art of critical thinking. They will be applying the rational and morals they have learned so far in life to the scenarios they encounter in books such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Lady Chatterley's Lover, or In Cold Blood.
When confronted with a subject matter involving rape, poverty, sexuality, violence, and discrimination, the student can gain a greater sense of their own morals, justice, and the unfair circumstances of life. In other words, when a student understands how bad life could be, they find how good they want life to be.
Of course, this does not mean any and all material should be used. No sane high school teacher would stand up for the use of pornography in the classroom, and we could argue against the use of an explicit book like 50 Shades of Grey. But that does pose problems for a teacher’s curriculum because of the wide demographic in public schools.
Anyone could argue for or against the use of any material in a classroom. In one example from the National Council of Teachers of English, a pre-Christian text from Greece was challenged for being un-Christian (NCTE).
Books should not be banned for merely having an absence of a particular value, nor should a book be banned for containing something objectionable. Judgment must be made based on what can be learned from the book. But it is important for any teacher to know what objections might surface regarding the material they are assigning.
Additionally, teachers should have alternative reading selections that still accomplish the goal of critical thinking (Bushman). This way, if a student or parent cannot see the value and will not read the book in question, it can still be made available to other students, while avoiding the possibility of an academic challenge or ban.
What Are the Motives Behind Banning Books?
It is understandable that there have been over 9,600 challenges to materials and books over the years. In a country so diverse, it is inevitable that opinions will clash from time to time.
But it is important to understand the motives and fears behind such calls for banning books. All parents want the best for their children and have a natural urge to protect them from perceived dangers. It is the responsibility of our public teachers to educate the future of this country so they can think for themselves and recognise good from bad.
Part of that responsibility requires the assignment to read books that some people find objectionable. This can often mean educating parents as well as students. Because the ultimate goal is not for them to like what they have read, or to accept it as the way it should be; the goal is for people to decide for themselves, but they can’t unless they have access to it and read it.
- Broderick, D. (1986). Areas and issues: Children and books. In Z. Sutherland, & M. Arbuthnot (Eds.), Children and books (7th ed., pp. 614-615). Glenview, IL: Foresman.
- Bushman, J., & Parks-Haas, K. (2001). Using young adult literature in the English classroom (3rd ed). Columbus, OH: Prentice-Hall.
- Morales, Macey. "Book Banning Alive and Well in the U.S." American Library Association. American Library Association, 9 Sept. 2008. Web. 16 Feb. 2013.
- NCTE. "Guideline for Defining and Defending Instructional Methods." NCTE Comprehensive News. N.p., Aug. 2008. Web. 15 Feb. 2013.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.