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Literature Is More Than the Sum of Its Parts

Book stack with magnifying glass on topCensorship in schools isn’t just about what books make it into a reading list. It’s also about whether we trust the professional judgment of the educators who are tasked with creating those lists.

A common misconception in society and the world of schools is that this judgment can somehow be made quantitatively—through “trusted sources” like the Motion Picture Association of America, Common Sense Media, or Bookalachi. The trouble with these sites is that they count “offenses” found in individual parts of the text (e.g., how the characters may be less than desirable people or how many “F bombs” or nude scenes appear) and offer their tallies under advisement to parents—not to schools or libraries.

The NCTE Position Statement Regarding Rating or “Red-Flagging” Books explains why such rating systems just don’t work for schools, whose main job, of course, is education:

“Red-flagging” privileges the concerns of would-be censors over the professional judgment of teachers and librarians who review and select the books for their students. . . .

NCTE believes that literature is more than the sum of its parts and has developed policies that strongly discourage censorship. Letter ratings and “red-flagging” is a blatant form of censorship; the practice reduces complex literary works to a few isolated elements—those that some individuals may find objectionable—rather than viewing the work as a whole.

We select the texts we use in our classrooms to meet the aims of our courses and curricula. At the same time, we look for texts that are appropriate for our readers, texts that will interest and engage them and push them to think beyond their own local worlds. It’s not as clean a process as scanning a text and counting curse words—it’s a thoughtful, collaborative process that leads to deeper learning for everyone involved. Check out NCTE’s Guidelines for Selection of Materials in English Language Arts Programs to learn more.