Opinion
Families & the Community Commentary

This Banned Book Week, Teaching Banned Books Isn’t Enough

By Jonna Perrillo — September 22, 2017 4 min read

Sept. 25 marks the start of Banned Books Week, an annual celebration of academic freedom and students’ rights to read. It is an important occasion to observe, but this year, especially, it should serve as an invitation to reflect on not just what young Americans read but also the ways in which they are encouraged to think and talk about books.

Students’ right to read was never in greater peril than during the 1950s. In audacious displays, parents in Oklahoma and Alabama took to burning “subversive” textbooks. Special-interest groups across the nation effectively pressured schools and libraries to remove trade and textbooks that they claimed might poison students’ minds.

The National Council of Teachers of English, for which I am the council historian, waged its own battle in response. In 1953, its primer for teachers on how to resist public pressure to ban books, Censorship and Controversy, urged that during “a time of tension and fear,” it was vital that teachers not become prey to “the rise of un-American tactics in public discussion and the violence of selfish interests.”

BRIC ARCHIVE

In a Cold War culture that often prized conformity and opacity, teachers were on the front lines of keeping American schools truly free.

That defense against book banning was important but also obscured the larger problem at hand: teachers’ avoidance of anything controversial or political in the first place. Public education is supposed to help students understand and participate in the wider world, but too often, teachers have learned to evade anything potentially contentious. Parents might have called for books to be banned, but many teachers were shying away from assigning controversial books in the first place.

This was certainly the case with The Catcher in the Rye, one of the most contested books of the 1950s and 1960s. When the NCTE endorsed it for the high school classroom in 1962, teachers roundly rejected the suggestion. “I would not consider teaching it regardless of the community’s feeling,” explained one Minnesota teacher, echoing others. “My students’ reaction would be one of embarrassment and bafflement.”

This problem is not unique to the Cold War or to English teachers. In the recent book The Case for Contention, Jonathan Zimmerman and Emily Robertson show that teachers’ willingness to address controversial subjects has waxed and waned over time, but it has been consistently low since the 1980s. That is often the case, they argue, because teachers are not sure how to help students work their way through questions that lack consensus or what the ends of democratic debate should be.

Classroom work can often reduce potentially complex stories to easy truisms or didactic messages."

The problem, then, is not just a matter of the topics or texts we teach but with how we teach them. Even as reading lists and textbooks have become more inclusive, many classroom conversations remain stuck in the past.

Take, for example, the ever popular yet frequently contested To Kill a Mockingbird. How many teachers encourage students to debate the adequacy of character Atticus Finch’s moralism? How many ask how the persistent racial and economical segregation of schools today make it difficult to truly “walk in another person’s shoes?” How many challenge their students to consider how the courts and criminal-justice system have changed (and not changed) in the 80 years since the novel was set? The book raises those questions precisely because it continues to be presented to students as a straightforward lesson in overcoming prejudice.

Instead, classroom work can often reduce potentially complex stories to easy truisms or didactic messages that compel little questioning or introspection. Students learn to lionize Atticus without considering how privilege works in the novel and in the world. They accept at face value Atticus’ claim that the Ku Klux Klan never took in the fictional Maycomb, Ala., even though it was exactly the kind of town that was ripe for racial violence.

In missing out on more nuanced and complex conversations, students fail to learn that it is possible to question a book and value it still. And they lose an opportunity to develop a more multifaceted understanding of civic life and their role in it.

Our current political period shares several qualities with the early Cold War, including a testing of democratic institutions, an embittered public discourse, and a regression in civil rights. Teachers know better than anyone how aware youths are of these developments and how potentially powerless they can feel in response. School should act as a counterweight that draws students in, teaches them how to think through debates, and empowers them to participate in ways that are rational, intelligent, productive, and democratic. Educators realized this 60 years ago. It is just as important today.

Banned Books Week can and should provide educators with an opportunity to consider the books we teach and the important conversations we want those books to spur. But we shouldn’t feel too comfortable or self-congratulatory. Celebrating academic freedom is about more than the right to teach texts that might offend some; it is about teachers’—and parents’—responsibility in helping students wrestle with difference and complexity without becoming offended.

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Facebook and Twitter. Sign up to get the latest Education Week Commentaries in your email inbox.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Law & Courts Webinar
The Future of Criminal Justice Reform: A Sphere Education Initiative Conversation
America’s criminal justice system is in crisis and calls for reform are dominating the national debate. Join Cato’s Sphere Education Initiative and Education Week for a webinar on criminal justice and policing featuring the nation’s
Content provided by Cato Institute
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Equity, Care and Connection: New SEL Tools and Practices to Support Students and Adults
As school districts plan to welcome students back into buildings for the upcoming school year, this is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and our systems to build a
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Here to Stay – Pandemic Lessons for EdTech in Future Development
What technology is needed in a post pandemic district? Learn how changes in education will impact development of new technologies.
Content provided by AWS

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Families & the Community Opinion Vaccinating Teachers Is Just One Part of the Reopening Puzzle
Winning parents' trust back is every bit as important in bringing every student back into the classroom.
Ruth R. Faden, Matthew A. Crane, Annette Anderson & Megan Collins
5 min read
Vaccine vials and a syringe on a flat surface
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty<br/>
Families & the Community Photos PHOTOS: Schools as COVID-19 Vaccination Clinics
A look at how and where school districts are using their facilities to host Covid-19 vaccination clinics.
Education Week Photo Staff
1 min read
Vaccine recipients meet with shot givers at the Anchorage School District headquarters. The Anchorage School District headquarters hosted a COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Anchorage, Alaska, on February 3, 2021.
Vaccine recipients meet with shot givers at the Anchorage School District headquarters. The Anchorage School District headquarters hosted a COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Anchorage, Alaska, on February 3, 2021.
Marc Lester/for Education Week
Families & the Community Audio A Storm, Power Outages, and a Pandemic: Texas Educators and Families Describe a School Year Upended
On top of the deadly pandemic, millions of people in Texas lost heat and water for days after a winter storm. Hear how families and educators coped.
2 min read
Jack Fitzgerald, 14, an 8th grader at Hogg Middle School in Houston, Texas, plays Rocket League at home this week when school was cancelled because of icy weather and widespread power outages. Jack's family had to stay with friends briefly when their home lost power and indoor temperatures plunged.
Jack Fitzgerald, 14, an 8th grader at Hogg Middle School in Houston, Texas, plays Rocket League at home this week when school was cancelled because of icy weather and widespread power outages. Jack's family had to stay with friends briefly when their home lost power and indoor temperatures plunged.
Courtesy of Ginny Goldman
Families & the Community Leader To Learn From Relying on Community Values: How One School Leader Advocates for Vulnerable Families
Carissa Purnell’s work at the Family Resource Centers in Salinas, Calif., is a lifeline for families, many of them migrant farm workers.
7 min read
Carissa Purnell, director of the Family Resource Centers for the Alisal Union School District in Salinas, Calif.
Carissa Purnell, director of the Family Resource Centers for Alisal Union School District in Salinas, Calif., provides essential services and critical information to vulnerable families.
Nic Coury for Education Week