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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Is Book Banning a 21st Century Skill?

By Peter DeWitt — January 22, 2012 6 min read
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Last week, a story about book banning in the Tucson Unified School District appeared in newspapers (NY Times) and blogs (Larry Ferlazzo). Tucson USD allegedly banned books on a variety of topics but mostly those related to the oppression of ethnic minorities, one of which was Rethinking Columbus edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson. The banning was all part of a decision by some Arizona state politicians to shut down the district’s popular ethnic studies program.

As schools are trying to engage students through the use of 21st century skills there are others schools that are still practicing the art of banning books. As astonishing as it may seem as we negotiate our way through 2012, there are numerous books that are being banned, or considered for banning, every year.

Banning books typically happens when an adult complains about the content of a book. That content might include vulgar language, sexual content or racism. It doesn’t mean the books actually have this type of content in them. It just means that, in the reader’s opinion, the writer went too far with the content they included in the book.

It is often said that textbooks are from the “winners” point of view which means that the story told is from one side. Books that are banned are often the ones that are written from the oppressed point of view, and those stories do not make readers feel good, so they are left or taken out of classrooms. Sadly, those books tell a story everyone needs to know because they provide another perspective in a sad situation.

Educators work hard to expose students to experiences they have never had before. Sometimes it is done through conversations when “teachable moments” appear, and other times educators rely on the use of really good books so that children can be educated, entertained and inspired all at the same time. Teachers spend a great deal of time in the school library with the librarian choosing the best books that might inspire a teachable moment.

Teaching in any school system exposes us to a diverse number of family structures. We know that students come from a variety of backgrounds. Regardless of our beliefs, we cannot judge these students nor should we judge their families. As a former city school teacher, I learned quickly that the literature I chose as a teacher could help make many of my students feel better about their lives.

One publication that I connected with was Rethinking Schools. I quickly realized that my students didn’t come from the backgrounds that I found in books and Rethinking Schools provided me with suggestions on finding books that were relatable to my students. Now as a principal, I feel that it is my job to support and encourage teachers as they expose students to new ideas, concepts and experiences. Books offer an escape during a difficult time or offer inspiration to work a bit harder.

Rethinking Columbus
Bill Bigelow who is the editor of Rethinking Columbus along with Bob Peterson. Bill is also an editor for Rethinking Schools is in the middle of the Tucson controversy. I asked him his thoughts about the alleged banning of his book and the present censorship that can be found in schools across North America.

PD: Why do you think Tucson if opting (self-selecting) not to use Rethinking Columbus?

BB: The banning of Rethinking Columbus is collateral damage. The rightwing in Arizona is engaged in a kind of curricular ethnic cleansing. Supt. Huppenthal said as much recently in his interview with Michel Martin on NPR’s “Tell Me More.” He worried that “our whole racial makeup” is changing and that this fact raised “serious concerns” about the kind of values that we should pass on to children.

Huppenthal and company want to make sure that students don’t think in terms of race, class, and ethnicity, and ask questions about the nature of oppression in the U.S. and the world. He is obsessed with the great Brazilian educator Paulo Freire because Freire wrote about posing problems about power and oppression. The conservative curricular agenda is for students to think only in terms of individuals. Want to get ahead? Just work hard; this is the land of opportunity.

The Huppenthal crowd recoils at the idea of solidarity -- that education might help students understand how Chicano/as in this country have been oppressed as a people and that progress has come through collective struggle, like the student walkouts in the late 1960s. Rethinking Columbus helps students think about whose stories, whose lives have been left out of the curriculum, or even lied about. I think that approach resonates with Mexican American students because their history and their lives have also been left out of, and lied about in the traditional school curriculum.

PD: Why do you believe that we still see book banning in 2012?

BB: The only other book of mine that has ever been banned was my curriculum on teaching about South Africa, Strangers in Their Own Country, which was banned by the apartheid regime in 1986. The government had declared a state of emergency, because people were organizing, people were resisting minority rule -- and specifically young people were resisting what they called “gutter education” -- schooling that prepared them for little more than menial labor. So when there is resistance, people in power want to suppress writing (and curriculum) that give expression to that resistance, that help people think critically about the world.

It seems to me that similar things are going on in Arizona. People in a position of power feel that their hold on power is being threatened -- that people who they have long kept in subordination are organizing and challenging their subordination, and the “gutter education” they’ve been subjected to. The other lesson from South Africa: Those of us “on the outside” need to figure out how we can offer aid and encouragement to the communities, teachers, and students who are fighting for their rights and dignity. Denouncing the banning of the Mexican American Studies program and the books used in that program is an important gesture of solidarity.

Book Banning
In a study done by School Library Journal, it was found that parents, administrators and librarians censor books. Librarian censor books when they know literature will not be supported by the adult community. “Sexual content ranks number one, with 87 percent of those surveyed saying it’s the main reason they shy away from buying a book. Objectionable language (61 percent) comes in second followed by violence (51 percent), homosexual themes (47 percent), racism (34 percent) and religion (16 percent).”

As much as book banning is widespread, self-selection happens more often in schools. Self-selection happens when teachers and librarians do not choose books because they’re concerned about the pushback they may receive from the community. Self-selection happens often and goes unnoticed. The American Library Association (ALA) creates a list of books that have been challenged or banned by schools across the country (banned books list). They sponsor an annual Banned Book Week where librarians, parents and students can read the books that have been banned by others. Banning books is a slippery slope that is mostly based on biases. The problem with it is that the books being banned may tell the story of the lives of our students.

Bill Bigelow is curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and author or co-editor of several Rethinking Schools books: A People’s History for the Classroom, The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration, Rethinking Columbus, Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World, and Rethinking Our Classrooms--Volumes 1 and 2. Bill is the co-director of the Zinn Education Project, www.zinnedproject.org, which offers a rich array of alternative teaching resources. Bigelow lives in Portland, Oregon, and has taught high school social studies since 1978.

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Whelan, Debra Lau. "A Dirty Little Secret: Self-censorship is rampant and lethal." School Library Journal. 55.02 (2009): 27-30. Print.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.