Book bans are part of a coordinated assault on public education
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Jonathan Friedman is Director of Free Expression and Education Programs at PEN America and the lead author of “Banned America: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools.” This column was produced by Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.
Over the past year and a half, young people and educators have witnessed a growing campaign to silence the voices in schools across our country. Districts across the country are banning books with unprecedented frequency, directly compromising students’ freedom of learning. This movement has gained momentum thanks to local and national advocacy groups, many of which have conservative leanings, as well as political pressure from elected officials.
PEN America, where I lead free speech and education programs, recently released research documenting the extent of this threat in great detail. During the 2021 to 2022 school year — from July 2021 to June 2022 — nearly 140 school districts in 32 states issued more than 2,500 book bans.
These bans overwhelmingly targeted books featuring protagonists of color, exploring issues of race and racism, telling stories with LGBTQ+ characters, or containing sexual content of any kind. This is a blatant crackdown, driven by long-standing prejudice against the LGBTQ+ community and extremist Christian attitudes toward sexuality, morality, and American culture. The book ban movement has also been propelled by backlash from the New York Times’ “1619 Project” and anti-“CRT” sentiment, as well as opposition to masking and the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 19.
Calls to ban books in schools are not new. But what is new is the level of organization and coordination that drives it. We are now seeing a vast network of advocacy organizations assembling long lists of titles to purge from school shelves and sharing strategies on how to embarrass, intimidate or pressure school administrators to meet their requirements.
Our research found that at least 50 of these groups are working locally and nationally to advocate for book bans – some of which already have hundreds of independent chapters, like Moms For Liberty, a conservative ‘parental rights’ organization. founded in 2021.
These groups pressure schools and districts to circumvent established guidelines for determining which books should be used in curricula or available in school libraries. They use the rhetoric of parental rights to overshadow the expertise of educators and librarians, while notably ignoring the differing views of other parents and students.
Less than 4% of the book bans we identified were the result of detailed objections and transparent, thoughtful processes that allowed for participation and deliberation between professionals and parents together – or even required books to be read before they were released. are not prohibited. Writer Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin remarked at a recent PEN event, “People who read books don’t ban them.
In Walton, Florida, when the superintendent decided to remove two dozen books from the shelves of the school library, for example, he told the press, “I haven’t read a paragraph from the books yet.” His decision to withdraw these titles was made unilaterally, based on a list emailed to him by one of these advocacy groups. These groups were somehow more influential than the opinions of teachers, librarians, and parents who disagreed with the bans in the district.
As alarming as these bans are, they are only part of a larger political and cultural campaign to censor what is taught in schools. We are in the midst of an assault on public education that rivals the reactionary panics of the Red Scare and the McCarthy era. This “Ed Scare” focuses not just on eradicating communism, but on censoring a wide range of subjects without regard to students’ freedom to read, learn, and think.
This is evident in the rise and spread of educational gags – bills and laws to restrict teaching and learning – which have targeted all the same topics and impinge not only on K-12 schools, but also on which can be taught in colleges and universities.
And the clashes show no signs of abating, especially as we head into a midterm election season where candidates are running on these sorts of policies. Together, the battles unfolding in our schools jeopardize the principle of free speech enshrined in the First Amendment. Moreover, banning books depicting historically marginalized identities sends students a particularly pernicious message about the stories — and identities — that belong to them.
Fighting against these coordinated attempts is essential to protecting open inquiry in education, which gives students the tools they need to thrive in our diverse society. We should all be concerned if public schools are forced to prioritize fear of controversy and political retaliation over learning.