The same parents arguing that they should control what their children read and learn want to control what all children read and learn; they will not accord other parents the same rights they’re fighting for. That’s complete hypocrisy!
As a teacher, I have always supported parents who want to be involved in their own children’s education. When some of those parents expressed concerns over book choices and curriculum, I worked with them. I remember a parent’s apprehension over the suicides in Romeo and Juliet given the death of her son’s older brother by his own hand. I offered alternatives. In the end, however, assured that we would talk about the tragic foolhardiness of the two protagonists’ making such an irrevocable choice, she chose to let him participate and made sure to follow up with conversations at home. I felt good about that whole experience.
I do not support the banning of books and courses or the rewriting of books. I find the present push by parents and parent groups to make decisions not just for their own children but for everyone else’s children both unfathomable and unacceptable. If teachers and schools afford those parents a role in their own students’ education, who are they to deny other parents the same option? Yet the current push to rewrite and/or forbid different works (and even entire courses, like Florida’s response to the AP course in African-American history) would deny others the very freedom those parents are seeking. That’s wrong.
Emily Style, founding Co-Director of the national SEED Project (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) describes curriculum as a window and a mirror: “education needs to enable the student to look through window frames in order to see the realities of others and into mirrors in order to see her/his own reality reflected. Knowledge of both types of framing is basic to a balanced education which is committed to affirming the essential dialectic between the self and the world” (wcwonline.org). While she supports parents’ involvement for their own children, she writes, “I draw the line, however, at their insisting that their values, which limit the perspectives their children can consider, must be universal. Parents who want their children to understand history as it really occurred should have equal rights” (nationalseedproject.org).
This push for censorship and control not only limits rights of families who think differently, but it cripples our ability to understand and learn. “The possibility of a more just future is at stake when book bans deny young people access to knowledge of the past” (theatlantic.com). Our students will face a global context; they will live and work with people of varied perspectives. Our nation needs these students to be better prepared for that context. The philosopher George Santayana wrote, ““Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If our youth study a fully sanitized history, how will they learn from the past in order to forge a better future? If any potentially offensive terms are cleansed from books, how will they fully understand the past? “With lessons from the past, we not only learn about ourselves and how we came to be, but also develop the ability to avoid mistakes and create better paths for our societies” (mooc.org).
Furthermore, this push to limit access to multiple perspectives and to address unsavory realities of our shared history comes from a minority of parents that would force their views on all others. A 2022 Harris poll showed just 12% of respondents wanted books on divisive topics banned, and upwards of 70% of Americans, including both Democrats and Republicans, oppose such bans (Time.com). “In the name of vindicating their ‘rights,’ parents with special interests are pursuing tactics that the overwhelming majority of parents and citizens reject” (Ibid.).
So will we continue to allow minority rule to limit our options?
These arguments apply not only to the choice and availability of books, but to the revision of books as well. Megan McCardle reminds us that the sanitized version of Shakespeare’s work by Thomas Bowdler, the version that removed all profanity, was for a time the best-selling version until people realized what great writing had been removed. She calls Inclusive Minds’ revisions of works by Roald Dahl “lobotomies”; instead, we should “give children a window into the real past, as the people living there saw it, rather than compress their reading material into an eternal now. If our moral ideas are so self-evidently correct (and to be clear, I think that in many cases they are), then it should be easy to train children to recognize the past’s mistakes” (washingtonpost.com). Washington Post books columnist Ron Charles acknowledges the value in Aunt Jemima’s syrup losing its racist icon and Dr. Seuss books losing offensive illustrations but writes, “The absolutist position against tinkering with dead authors’ works is generally the best one. And right-wing efforts to ban swaths of stories about Black Americans and LGBTQ+ people make all efforts to ‘fix’ literature sound sinister” (Washington Post Book Club newsletter 2.24.23). PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel warns that “[r)ewriting novels — like efforts to rewrite history — has origins in authoritarian playbooks. We need to learn from the perspective of the past, not eliminate viewpoints we no longer accept” (Ibid.). She urges us to support children’s development of autonomy and critical thinking, to help them test their own opinions and beliefs.
This concerted effort to cleanse both libraries and curricula along with individual books has librarians and educators fearful and uncertain. “Over the past three academic years, legislators in 45 states proposed 283 laws that either sought to restrict what teachers can say about race, racism and American history; to change how instructors can teach about gender identity, sexuality and LGBTQ issues; to boost parents’ rights over their children’s education; to limit students’ access to school libraries and books; to circumscribe the rights of transgender students; and/or to promote what legislators defined as a ‘patriotic’ education”[washingtonpost.com2). Teachers find themselves self-censoring and restricting what they say “about race and the darker parts of U.S. history” (Ibid.). At least 160 educators have already resigned or lost their jobs because of fights over the appropriateness of instruction on race, history or LGBTQ issues (washingtonpost3). Armed individuals terrorize school board meetings, while librarians face harassment and threats (Ibid.). Hannah Allen of The Washington Post warns:
The goal, extremism monitoring groups say, is to spread the ideology at the grass-roots level by taking on — or taking over — school boards, city councils, sheriff’s departments and other local institutions. In the case of libraries, they say, book bans are only a first step, followed now by legislation to weaken librarian control over collections, moves to strip libraries of legal protections and, in some examples, efforts to defund libraries altogether (Ibid.).
Adults who demand wholesale banning of books and rewriting of offensive passages in a desire to protect their own children cripple the learning of all children. Books like Maus, a graphic Holocaust novel that “show readers how personal prejudice can become the law. The irony is that in banning books that make them uncomfortable, adults are wielding their own prejudices as a weapon, and students will suffer for it” (theatlantic.com2). It is time for the rest of us to support not only the rights of these parents, but also our own. We must demand the same respect for our values that they demand for theirs and end this tyranny of the minority. Only then can we hope to raise enough citizens with an understanding of multiple perspectives and the chance to live well in an ever more diverse and challenging world.