Chat GPT concerns continue to escalate, and the industry is moving very quickly. Google is about to release Bard, its own AI chat, which Google will not only release to the public for free but also begin using to generate search results. Just today Microsoft “said it would ‘reimagine’ its Bing search engine with technology mirroring the model from ChatGPT creator OpenAI” [washingtonpost.com]. Even as articles warning of disaster from AI multiply, innovators are suggesting way to use AI productively. I will write more about this, but right now I feel an urgency about sharing a recent Washington Post article.
Entitled “Hide your books to avoid felony charges, Fla. Schools tell teachers” it describes the impact of Florida House Bill 1467, passed last July, which “mandates that schools’ books be age-appropriate, free from pornography and ‘suited to student needs’” [washingtonpost.com2]. The new law requires qualified school media specialists who have undergone a state training program to approve all books in the school library and in the classroom. Because that training didn’t occur until last month, the law’s impact is now causing teachers to strip their bookshelves of books or cover them with paper.
Because an older Florida law makes the distribution of “harmful materials” to minors a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and up to a $5,000 fine, these new rules have a chilling effect on book selection and student access. A spokeswoman from the Florida Department of Education warned that teachers who violate the law may face penalties on their teaching certificates as well. And “because of uncertainties around enforcement and around what titles might become outlawed, school officials have warned teachers that their classroom libraries may expose them to the stiffest punishments” [Ibid.].
At least two counties, Manatee and Duval, have already directed teachers to remove or wrap up their classroom libraries. Many educators and teachers have expressed outrage. Students have shared their frustration as well. According to Broward School Board member Sarah Leonardi, Florida “is a state that seeks to limit access to knowledge and resources that don’t fit in a conservative ideological box. … It is a state that is making it more and more difficult to educate or parent a child without constant fear of retribution” [news4jax.com].
This initiative is chilling for so many reasons. As a teacher, I believe my responsibility is to develop critical thinking skills. How can students think critically if they aren’t exposed to multiple ideas? As an educator I feel great concern over the burnout and frustration of those currently in the classroom, especially when we already can’t fill all those shoes and when the pipeline of new teachers is grossly inadequate. How can we expect teachers to do their jobs well when we keep threatening them and questioning their professionalism? As a co-founder of my school district’s Gay Straight Alliances and of the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, I fear for the well-being of sexually minority youth when their resources are among those being removed. How will they manage without support?
I come to this with a clear bias. My parents allowed me to read anything as long as I would talk about it with them. When I outgrew the Cherry Ames series and other books in the children’s department of our library, they helped me get an adult card when I was still in grade school. I read Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy well before my teens. Was I traumatized? I was growing up during the panic over bomb shelters, and Shute’s novel gave me a way to discuss fear of the apocalypse with my parents. Saroyan fed my curiosity about the human condition and dealing with loss. And when I took a paperback considered racy back then [though pretty benign by today’s standards] on a sleepover and finished it that night, my girlfriend asked to read it. Her mother sent it back to my mother in a plain brown wrapper, clearly appalled. My mother’s reaction: “Everyone has to make their own decisions about what’s appropriate. You did nothing wrong, but she has every right to decide differently for her daughter.” I still support that vision.
As an English teacher, I always offered alternatives when parents expressed concerns, but I do believe that students should be exposed to a variety of ideas so they can make their own evaluations. Depriving students and teachers of books that foster critical thinking is backwards. I wonder how many of the books I so loved teaching, precisely because they challenged student’s understanding of the status quo and provoked thought and discussion, will pass the test in Florida. Will students miss books like Catcher in the Rye because of its profanity and references to sex? Or Lord of the Flies because it reveals undesirable human tendencies? Fahrenheit 451 or Animal Farm because they show the dangers of authoritarian governments? To Kill a Mockingbird because of its portrayal of systemic racism? Beloved or The Color Purple because of the current backlash against “anti-racism”? How do we teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn responsibly without exploring Twain’s use of the n-word and whether his treatment of Jim is racist. Each of the books included above has been challenged repeatedly. Each of these books was also a critical piece of my curricula as I worked to help students explore and navigate a world bigger than the one they knew.
Banning books is not new. This level of control, however, frightens me. We cannot have an educated populace equipped to make good decisions and deal with the evolving challenges and changes in our country and in the world. These culture wars will destroy our culture if we don’t fight back.