Some educators are concerned that eliminating controversial texts from the K-12 curriculum will hurt students’ critical thinking and development, as well as deprive them of the cultural capital that universities want them to have.
Battles over free speech, academic freedom, and even the politics of fried chicken chains have long been fought in colleges and K-12 schools, with ideological opponents clashing over free speech, academic freedom, and even the politics of fried chicken chains. However, as school boards across the country remove tough texts from the K-12 curriculum, some in higher education are concerned about kids’ college readiness.
Some fear that not just high school pupils will be affected, but also students in younger grades, whose desire to read may be repressed before they can fully explore the literary world.
“If you want to make kids excited about reading, you let them read everything they want, and kids are interested in the topics that are in banned books,” said Kathy M. Newman, an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University who directs the Banned Books Project. “They’re interested in sex, sexuality, race, and racial controversy,” says the author.
However, parent groups from all over the country have made news by criticizing the inclusion of specific novels in public school curricula. Academics also point to coordinated efforts by conservative political organizations like Moms for Liberty, which has extensive ties to conservative donors. Critics point out that several of the questioned works, such as Gender Queer: A Memoir or Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, have racial or sexual minorities at the heart of the story. Academics warn that contrived outrage about critical race theory purportedly being taught in public schools is exacerbating the problem.
Recognizing the Battle
In the three months from September 1 to November 30, 2021, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom received more than 330 book challenges. This is up from the 156 issues recorded in 2020. The American Library Association (ALA) pointed out in an email that not every challenge is recorded, so these figures only represent a small portion of the requests to remove or restrict materials from U.S. libraries and classrooms.
Though the American Library Association reports that book challenges are on the rise, researchers who study the topic believe that the amplification effect of social media, which allows like-minded parents and political parties to grasp on to shared outrage, is fresh.
“People have always challenged literature,” Newman explained, “but only in the social media era can you get a lot of people from all over the world interested in the book you’re criticizing.”
Many recent challenges, according to Emily Knox, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who analyzes how books are banned, have been fueled by racial concern. She noted that many of the books being attacked at the K-12 level are works by a variety of authors who offer a perspective on marginalized and underrepresented people. These works provide a different picture of the country for many white parents who grew up in it.
“It’s a reactionary viewpoint in many ways,” Knox remarked. “While it is conservative in the sense of ‘this is not how I was taught the world is,’ I am attempting to preserve history as I perceive it.” The works they’re criticizing frequently question the current quo, such as the concept that the default protagonist is a white male. These books are bringing folks who aren’t generally centered when it comes to great literature or history back to their senses.”
Some of the novels being challenged, such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, have been suggested reading for Advanced Placement classes in high schools, according to Kal Alston, education professor and dean of academic affairs at Syracuse University. (In this paragraph, Alston’s first name has been corrected.)
“These are texts that have been utilized in high school literature classes for decades,” Alston added.
She is concerned that campaigners supported by clandestine organizations are seizing on debates over critical race theory—which is not taught in public K-12 schools—to demand control over the curriculum and, as a result, the educational narrative in the United States. These demands, she believes, will limit pupils’ exposure to new ideas and critical thinking growth.
“I believe that if we follow this idea of ‘parents should control the curriculum,’ we will end up in a poorer place for students entering college, because it is not only critical thinking but also autonomous thinking that is crucial for college student success,” Alston added.
Banned Books in the Classroom
The revelation that a Tennessee school board had banned Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize–winning comic novel Maus from its middle school curriculum, citing moderate language and one nude image, sparked controversy and drove up sales of the Pulitzer Prize–winning book.
Scott Denham, a German studies professor at Davidson College, was among those who were outraged by the revelation. Rather of ranting about the incident on Twitter, where he first learned about it, he chose to give a free course to affected students, which will begin next week.
The McMinn County school board’s decision to remove Maus from the curriculum “has built this anti-Semitic structure by making it difficult to teach the Holocaust,” Denham added. He went on to say that he sees this as a continuation of white supremacy and Christian nationalism.
Maus will now be taught to children in the district who are interested in learning about the Holocaust’s history, the structure of Holocaust tales, and how graphic novels and comics function as literary genres.
Newman also teaches an undergraduate class as part of CMU’s Banned Books Project, in which her students examine challenged books and create and publish a digital history of the debates. “A location where culture and politics collide,” she says of the subject.
According to Newman, students often come in with varying levels of exposure to challenging works. She recently taught The Awakening by Kate Chopin and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, two commonly challenged classics that about a fifth of her pupils had read in high school. She believes that such works are more likely to be introduced to kids in affluent or private high schools, as well as by activist librarians.
Teaching controversial texts can be difficult, but Knox considers growing pains to be an important part of the learning process.
“Difficult situations are a part of the educational process,” Knox explained. “Being exposed to new ideas is the first step in the process. And as you progress through the grades, this is something that you must do. Part of being prepared to be an undergraduate, of being prepared for what society requires and what it is to be a decent citizen, is being exposed to these ideas, which you may or may not agree with, but which make you think more critically and with more nuance and empathy about the world. That’s one of the issues in getting rid of these books.”
At the College Board, there has been a backlash.
The debate over K-12 education is also raging among the College Board’s ranks. Todd Huston, the Republican speaker of Indiana’s House of Representatives, recently resigned as the College Board’s senior vice president for state and district partnerships, citing his role in pushing Indiana legislation that would prohibit teachers from promoting “divisive concepts” and could result in educators losing their teaching license.
Opponents have accused the bill, which was motivated by the CRT backlash, of “forcibly hollowing out Indiana’s school curriculum,” claiming that it weakens local authority of schools and restricts debate of controversial themes.
When asked how challenges to books that are recommended reading for AP students would effect college readiness, the College Board declined to respond. In an email to workers, College Board president David Coleman announced Huston’s retirement, making no mention of the Indiana bill scandal and praising his abilities as an employee and leader.
“Todd Huston just informed me that the responsibilities of his role here as well as his elected post are unsustainable, and he wishes to dedicate more time to his work in the Indiana House of Representatives. Todd leaves the College Board with a long list of outstanding accomplishments in carrying out our goal. “At the same time, Todd shone as a leader within the company, universally regarded as a fantastic boss,” Coleman wrote in an email to workers.
“Since taking on the post of House Speaker, I’ve examined how I could best manage the huge degree of responsibility necessary in my considerable work at the College Board and as a public servant,” Huston said in a statement to the Indianapolis Star. Finally, I made the decision to leave the College Board.”
What’s in Store
As demographics shift and racial minorities become the majority, Knox feels that the United States is at a tipping point. She believes the present curriculum debate will continue for some time, noting that sticky problems such as how to educate the Jan. 6, 2021, insurgency have yet to be addressed.
“This is only the beginning of what I believe will be a long debate over what our society looks like and how we teach our history,” Knox added.
Knox is also concerned about the message communicated to kids, particularly those who may be marginalized, and the problems it may cause them as they adjust to their new surroundings. She considers the anguish of being a Jewish student in McMinn County, or a member of another marginalized community.
“What are the implications of these issues for the youngsters who have these identities?” Knox remarked. “Sure, you can acquire Gender Queer online if your school forbids it, but what does that say about the adults in your community?” If you’re a nonbinary child, what are they saying about you?”
Newman invites concerned viewers to remember the power of their own voices while parents, teachers, school boards, and political organizations grapple with a path ahead.
“Unfortunately, one of the answers is for individuals to get more active in local politics if they don’t like the judgments that school boards are making,” Newman said. “Being on a school board is perhaps the worst political job in the world.” It rarely pays, requires hundreds of hours per month, and is thankless. However, these debates highlight the significance of local control in politics, and school boards are an excellent way to get involved in politics. It should be done by more people.”