Many districts pride themselves on having a strong policy against censorship and point out that they “have not had a challenge in years” as proof that they must be doing something right. Sadly, they may be doing everything wrong. If there are no challenges because anything that could be considered controversial is already removed from the curriculum, what does that say about a district’s commitment to wide reading, to providing materials for its diverse population of students, or to its belief in the basic tenets of learning?
Of the many types of censorship that abound, I have always considered self-censorship, voluntarily removing books before they are challenged, as one of the most insidious. This form of restriction may happen when a librarian places a book “safely” under wraps if a parent complains, or a principal discourages the use of a particular book because “someone may object,” or the teacher herself doesn’t select a text she thinks would enhance her curriculum because it might be controversial. In Keep Them Reading: An Anti-censorship Handbook for Educators (2013), a book I co-wrote with anti-censorship advocate Gloria Pipkin, we discuss a situation where a teacher said she had decided to discontinue teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a book she felt was extremely valuable to her students, because she was exhausted from having to defend it. While we all understand the frustrations inherent in continually defending our choices, not using a book for such a reason would be considered a form of self-censorship.
I have now discovered a new wrinkle in the self-censorship scenario, and it begins and ends with a single word: approval. In a district where I recently held a workshop on literacy, I discovered that any book used for instruction by any teacher, including those taught in A.P. courses, had to be approved by a district committee.
How might such a process work? Let’s suppose, for example, that the book A Separate Peace, one that had been in the junior English curriculum for years, had never formally been approved by the district committee. Let’s assume as well that someone on the committee found something he felt was “inappropriate” in the novel. Because committee meetings are private, no one really knew what that offensive passage or idea might have been but, nevertheless, the decision was made: A Separate Peace was not approved for inclusion in the curriculum for juniors in this district. It gets worse. The teacher who had lessons in place for teaching the novel had to discard them at a moment’s notice and find another, pre-approved choice for her curriculum. What’s more, there was no appeal process available to the teacher, her students, or their parents. The decision was signed, sealed, and delivered without due process. Hundreds of students that year and many more in the future lost the opportunity to be taught an award-winning novel that their teacher felt was an important piece of coming-of-age literature. How, exactly, does this action differ from the most blatant form of censorship?
This example, based on true events, is similar to procedures that that have been put in place by countless districts across the country. Teachers, whose judgement and expertise should be valued, solicited actually, are subjugated to a committee that wields extraordinary curricular power. When such powers are used in restrictive ways to exclude materials, the greater the potential for wholesale censorship. One committee member finds a word offensive, another worries about what parents may say about a particular passage, someone else points out that the book has been banned in other districts, another feels uncomfortable with the ideas put forth by the author, and then a few express concern that teachers may not know how to deal with such sensitive topics. No, books aren’t challenged in this district because they never make it to the classrooms.
A review committee that has the power to “approve” or “reject” ideas, information, or artistic expression would likely benefit from a close reading of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451–assuming, of course, that no one on the committee disapproves of the content.
ReLeah Lent, author of multiple books and articles on literacy, is past chair of NCTE’s Standing Committee against Censorship, recipient of both NCTE and ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Awards, in addition to having been honored at a gala in New York City after winning the PEN’s First Amendment Award in 1999. In 2013 she received state education awards from Wisconsin and Florida. Find her on Twitter @RClent and on LinkedIN or visit her website.