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Why We Must Fight Classroom Censorship

A long-time college president recommends ways to affirm democracy — through libraries and schools — in these troubled times

Why We Must Fight Classroom Censorship

A long-time college president recommends ways to affirm democracy — through libraries and schools — in these troubled times

These are dangerous times for our democracy. Schools, universities, and libraries are under pressure — and sometimes under legal restraints — to ban books and limit classroom discussion. Kudos to teenagers in Texas, Missouri, Brooklyn, and York, PA, who have organized to fight censorship.

The Texas kids started a banned book club and gathered in the public library to read books on the forbidden list. In Missouri, two students filed a lawsuit against their school district for removing eight books from school libraries. The Brooklyn Public Library’s Intellectual Freedom Teen Council conducts weekly Zoom meetings to coordinate national resistance to censorship in school books.

Last fall, students in York, PA, successfully persuaded school administrators to reverse a ban on 300 books. These kids understand that the stakes are high. Where are the adults?

False assumptions about classroom indoctrination

In April, Florida passed HB7, which includes restrictions on the teaching of U.S. history, including the history of racism, in K-12 schools. The law, resembling those in many other states, also requires colleges and universities to limit discussion of the “divisive concepts” of gender and race. This state law reflects a rescinded Trump administration executive order on federally funded teacher training.

This Florida law is based on the false assumption that educators at all levels are committed to manipulating students to share their own beliefs — beliefs that the Right Wing mischaracterizes as “socialism,” “woke-ism,” or other inflammatory catch phrases.

Let me try to clear something up once and for all: Based on a lifetime in higher education at public and private universities in six states, some red, some blue, I hereby testify that indoctrination is the enemy of educational quality. In 2005, as a member of the Board of Directors of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), I was proud to participate in the framing and approval of the statement on “Academic Freedom and Educational Responsibility.”

As a professor, I was always committed to creating a safe environment for students. But, as I frequently told my classes, if my top goal was to make you comfortable, I would have become a flight attendant.

Educational responsibility, just as important as academic freedom, is a core value of the classroom. Teachers must create, in the words of the AAC&U document, “a dedicated context in which students and teachers seriously engage difficult and contested questions with the goal of reaching beyond differing viewpoints to a critical evaluation of the relative claims of different positions.”

In my own experience as a teacher of college writing, my goal was to help students become such effective writers and thinkers that they could successfully evaluate different positions and effectively communicate their ideas, including those I personally disagreed with. I made sure to explain that goal to my students. I think they believed me.

Intellectual diversity is the foundation of a strong education at all levels.

The AAC&U document clarifies concepts and dispels several misconceptions about academic freedom and responsibility:

    • Students must demonstrate civility and respect for those who disagree.
    • Students have a right to a safe environment, free from ridicule, and the right to be graded on the intellectual quality of their arguments.
    • While exploring controversial issues, students — and faculty members — must “examine diverse opinions, but within the frameworks that knowledgeable scholars — themselves subject to rigorous standards of peer view — have determined to be reliable and accurate.”
    • In the classroom, it is not acceptable to say the earth is flat. Just so, it’s not tolerable to deny that the Holocaust happened. The classroom has rules that are tighter than First Amendment rights to free speech. An American can support flat-earth and Holocaust denial personally but not as a professor bound by academic responsibility in the classroom, where it is essential to have evidence to support claims. The government won’t stop you from speaking a falsehood, but universities will insist on statements based on evidence. You can say it, but you can’t teach it.
    • Encountering new ideas and divergent viewpoints on highly charged issues — race, gender, religion, cultural values — is never comfortable. Safety is necessary, but discomfort is inevitable.

As a professor, I was always committed to creating a safe environment for students. But, as I frequently told my classes, if my top goal was to make you comfortable, I would have become a flight attendant.

Trigger warnings might be necessary in some cases. TV shows list them: violence, sexual activity, obscene language, smoking (yes, I really like that one!). Teachers should be similarly aware of the importance of alerting students in advance to disturbing material. But sensitivity to students’ emotions must not lead to censorship.

Encourage schools, colleges, and universities to teach from primary sources

States may pass laws against teaching Critical Race Theory, without understanding what it is — a legal theory. But it’s much more difficult to object to teaching students to read and evaluate photos, recordings, maps, letters, journals, and other primary sources.

These are all available with the click of a key from the Library of Congress (LOC). For teaching racial history, the page entitled, African American History: Teacher Resources and Primary Sources, is particularly useful. In fact, the Library of Congress webpage has a variety of incredibly rich materials, all available for evaluating claims, evidence and reasoning (CER) on many topics.

The Library of Congress also awards grants to K-12 schools, universities, museums, libraries, and other regional, state, and national groups. During my presidency of Governors State University, the College of Education received numerous teacher-training grants from the LOC. The culminating activity was the presentation of primary teaching materials. That evening was a highlight of my academic year.

Based on a lifetime in higher education at public and private universities in six states, some red, some blue, I hereby testify that indoctrination is the enemy of educational quality.

I hope that every College of Education in the Philadelphia area will apply for a grant from the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Partner Program.

In case readers wonder how primary material might be used in elementary school, let me draw an example from my own experience.

Years ago, when I was a professor doing teacher preparation at Arcadia University (née Beaver College), I decided to try out my commitment to the use of primary documents in my son’s third grade class. (My son’s embarrassment might be the subject of another article.) It was January, so I brought in a recording of Martin Luther King Jr., delivering “I Have a Dream.”

We listened and then we read the speech line by line. Much of the vocabulary was way beyond a third-grade level. But the kids were nonetheless engaged. Then I asked the kids to write about how far we had come in fulfilling MLK’s dream. They wrote. They discussed. They argued about percentages of fulfillment. (Yes, math came into the lesson.) Even though my son was ready to climb under his desk, the lesson was otherwise a success.

Primary documents are exciting. They are real. I’ve written before about the importance of teaching one of the most important primary documents — the U.S. Constitution — at every instructional level.

It is crucially important that students study the Constitution, its amendments, and the Supreme Court decisions that have interpreted it. Pennsylvania Act 35, passed in 2018, requires Commonwealth schools to develop “quality civics programs,” incorporating “Civic Knowledge, Skills, and Actions.” Philadelphia has the special advantage of the National Constitution Center, with engaging programs and resources to make these essential primary documents come alive.

Perhaps, if more teachers, students — and government officials — studied the Constitution and other primary documents of our country, we would not be dealing with the foolish and dangerous censorship now afflicting our nation.


Elaine Maimon, Ph.D., is the author of Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation. Her co-authored book, Writing In The Arts and Sciences, has been designated as a landmark text. She is a Distinguished Fellow of the Association for Writing Across the Curriculum. Follow @epmaimon on Twitter.

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