Taking On The Book Banners

A First Amendment strategy for teachers and parents

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For many teachers, censorship is not just something that appears in textbooks' discussions of the First Amendment. It is a very real, and sometimes frightening, problem. Consider what happened last year to a teacher in a small rural community in Georgia when she assigned Arthur Miller's classic play, Death of a Salesman, to her 9th grade honors English class.

Anticipating that some parents might not approve of some of the language, the teacher notified the parents that alternative assignments were available. When no one requested one, she began to teach the play. But complaints about the Miller work began to filter in to the district superintendent's office. He asked the teacher to repeat her offer of alternative assignments. She did so, again no one responded, and she continued to teach the play.

Several days later, the superintendent summoned the teacher to his office, told her he had received still more complaints, and—without using the formal review procedures set up to handle controversial material—asked her to withdraw the book. His action set off a controversy that eventually involved local churches, conflicting groups of parents, and the local school board. It was marked by bitter attacks on teachers, who at one point were called “communists” for their support of the Miller play. For now, Death of a Salesman remains banned pending an oft-delayed final decision by the school board.

The Georgia teacher's experience has been repeated all too often in the 1980's. Since 1982, there have been more than 600 censorship attempts in the schools, with the number growing each year. During the 1988-89 school year, censorship incidents occurred in 42 states and in every region: in big cities, small towns, and rural areas. Nearly half of the challenges resulted in the banning or restriction of the material under attack. Among the books most frequently attacked were The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men, and The Catcher in the Rye.

As we move into the 1990's, censorship attempts are almost certain to increase because such controversial issues as drugs and AIDS are making their way into the classroom. Moreover, the problem is likely to become more complicated as educators encourage greater parental involvement in schools while fighting off the attempts of some parents and others to ban books.

What can teachers do about censorship?

First, it's important for teachers and administrators to keep clearly in mind the distinction between the concerns of parents legitimately trying to exert an influence on their children's education, and censorship. When parents want to prevent their child from reading a certain book or discussing a certain subject, that's parental involvement—however educationally misguided it may sometimes seem to a teacher.

Public schools are, in fact, increasingly trying to accommodate parents' wishes to have a say in their children's education. Many English teachers, for example, routinely send notices home to parents when they plan to teach a novel that might be controversial. Districts often solicit parents' reactions when they are choosing new textbooks, or adopting new programs or curricula. As more and more school systems respond to the AIDS crisis by adopting family-life and sex-education programs, they invite considerable community involvement. Recognizing that such programs touch upon strong personal values and beliefs, many districts are also allowing students to “opt out” of the entire program, specific lessons or topics, or specific assigned readings.

But when parents want to forbid every student in the school from reading a book by having it removed from a class or library, that is censorship, plain and simple. And that's when teachers should take a stand.

Second, teachers and school officials should develop sound procedures for reviewing books and other classroom materials. If followed scrupulously, good review procedures make censorship far less likely. Such procedures should have several important characteristics. They should presume that a book is innocent until proven guilty; that is, challenged materials should remain in the schools during the review process. Only a formal, written complaint should trigger the review process, and those filing it should be encouraged to read the entire work and evaluate their objections in context. The procedures should encourage resolution of the complaint at the lowest organizational level—starting with the classroom teacher, then the principal, and so forth, through the district hierarchy. The local school board should be the court of last resort.

Teachers and administrators should clearly describe to parents and others the steps in the procedure, the people responsible at each stage, the key decision points, and any avenues of appeal. Teachers must be a part of review committees; the committees should also include administrators, parents, community representatives, and, where appropriate, students. The committees should focus their evaluation on the educational merit of the challenged material. In short, teachers should try to find ways to involve parents constructively in the selection of educational materials and programs, so they don't feel that book banning is their only recourse when they are dissatisfied.

Free inquiry and exploration should be the watchwords of education. Children can learn this explicitly, through careful, thoughtful instruction, and they can learn it implicitly, by observing how those around them react to controversy and pressure. When censorship challenges arise, all members of the education community—teachers, parents, administrators, and school board members—need to ensure that the lesson students learn is not to fear ideas, avoid controversy, and subvert the democratic principles that guide our behavior in the school, in the community, and in the larger society.

Vol. 01, Issue 04, Pages 78-79

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