Are We Still Battling Censorship?
In 2003 Diane Ravitch’s well researched book, The Language Police, How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, was published by Knopf. Packed with revelations about censorship, reviews were positive overall. In its review, the Baltimore Sun declared, “It should be obligatory reading for every citizen concerned with the intellectual, moral, and imaginative life of U.S. children and society as a whole.” In the spring of 2003, Ravitch opened a discussion of the book at Harvard. A book tour around the country followed.
Reactions were strong. Educators, parents, business people, and politicians were either propelled to action or denial after reading it. Her acknowledgements reveal the extent to which she sought out and received information from textbook companies, commissioners of education, other education officials, Educational Testing Service, and library officials and organizations already into the reform effort. Also, by 2003, we had come forward in our awareness of the use of language. Language affects and discloses thinking. Some schools were facing, or had faced, the consideration of changing the name of their athletic teams and mascots. “Political correctness” became an accusation. Little changed. Textbook companies remained in control of written language presented to students.
So when in 2013, just last week, in The Huffington Post we read an article on censorship, it caught our attention and concern. The article begins by explaining that when Purdue University President Mitch Daniels was Governor of Indiana, he advocated having Howard Zinn’s work excluded from the Indiana schools’ curriculum. He justified his position calling Zinn a liberal historian whose books should not be in the hands of children. He defends that position even now. The article reports, “After being told Zinn’s work was being used at Indiana University in a course for teachers on the Civil Rights, feminist and labor movements, Daniels wrote: “This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state. No student will be better taught because someone sat through this session...” The article ends with a former member of Purdue’s Board of Trustees claiming Daniels is an ardent supporter of academic freedom.
So, does he defend censorship for children and not for college students? Or does he hold to the belief that campuses have become too liberal, silencing the voice of conservative America? Is he skillfully presenting the invitation to open the right/left debate on campuses? How many of us know who discovered America? How many of us think about the westward expansion as the theft of a nation? In our generation, how many of us grew up playing cowboys and Indians with toy guns and bows and arrows? Is harm done by that socialization? Our engrained childhood stories and experiences are not so easy to let go of as adults. Ten years after the publication of Ravitch’s comprehensive analysis of the issue, there are still leaders talking about censorship like it is a “should we? or shouldn’t we?” issue.
In our democracy, we hold ardently to our rights. Our freedom of speech is one of the most fundamental. And, to exercise that freedom, one must have freedom of thought. Our polarized nation reveals itself in red states and blue states when looking at national elections, in the dysfunctional stalemates of our legislatures, and in the conservative and liberal media. How can we advocate for freedom of thought when our thought processes seek the one right answer? We advocate for free speech while simultaneously hoping for the majority to agree with our thinking. It is our rich dilemma. As leaders, it describes the terrain of our work. When crisis occurs, we stand together as a people; without it, we fight like wolves, claiming our territory and staking out our ground. It allows those behind the scenes to make money by cleansing and controlling textbooks.
Does The Internet Hold A Solution?
The Internet is disrupting this pattern. It is allowing schools to open the floodgates to widely divergent perspectives and experiences. Dr. Joyce Valenza, the library-media specialist at Springfield Township School District in Pennsylvania, maintains a comprehensive website that can be used as a model for expanding classroom, library and research capabilities and can serve as a resource from which all of us can learn. In addition, UNC Chapel Hill has developed a program with a website as another valuable resource. LearnNC - “a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education, finds the most innovative and successful practices in K-12 education and makes them available to the teachers and students of North Carolina -- and the world.” As part of the LearnNC website, another of , Dr. Valenza’s web pages , offers more resources to help bring information into our schools.
It is easier now to begin a journey away from censorship. Of course, the first step will always be to recognize that, in our choices of literature and of history texts, we may be instilling bias. Print material is written by human beings who represent their own thinking. It is inarguable. It is true for textbooks, talk radio, and, yes, blogs. Reality is that it is less complicated to teach a single perspective than to attempt to teach children how to reconcile strongly held, divergent positions from authorities on an issue without imposing our sense of right over their freedom of thought and speech. Therein lays the minefield. This is an everyday issue for leaders.
This technology is our best weapon against censorship but we have a lot to learn about it as well. Learning how to interact with all perspectives is an essential 21st century skill. It appears that increasingly technology is prepared to help us provide 21st century thinking skills to our students and ourselves. Is there any question that we need to improve our capacities to listen to and understand each other? Eliminating censorship can help to change the way we are educating our students. Embracing the Internet as a vehicle to that end is inevitable. So why not begin in earnest?
Note: There are millions of resources available to continue on this journey. We purposefully included only two, Joyce Valenza and LearnNC as jumping off points, trying to keep it simple and accessible for even the most hesitant among us.
Stay connected with Ann and Jill on Twitter.
The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.