Censorship in public schools is creating a blanket of ignorance that is clouding the education of children and adolescents. In order to obtain the most well-rounded education, and to become competent, compassionate, and successful adults, educators must be able to help introduce curriculum to students which will illustrate socioeconomic and other issues they may be confronted with in the real world. The banishment or removal of subject matter that is deemed “controversial” or harmful will only further push students away from truly learning about the world around them. Rather than remove material which may not be at the comprehension level of every student, schools should alternatively present age-appropriate curriculum which introduces the background of varying topics for further study. Analysts and doctors within the realm of education and philosophy have agreed that censorship is not the most effective tool for shading our youth from harm or controversy; it alienates them, leaving them unprepared to face those issues later in life.
Bridging the Gap: Unmasking Censorship
Anyone who has lost their vision can likely explain how difficult adjusting to a world of darkness can be. They could detail the anxiety of holding onto colors, shapes, and distant memories of the physical world, while coping with the darkness of their reality. Darkness is a world that they do not know, after having only known a part of the visual world. The same is true of a child or adolescent who enters the world of adulthood and maturity without truly having been exposed to the reality of the adult world; full of complexity, controversy, and diversity. It is the responsibility of educators, parents, friends, and family to educate and prepare the youth of the nation to enter into a world where they are prepared to function, succeed, and engage others with maturity, tolerance, and intellect. Perhaps Pat Scales, a public school librarian, says it best: “Censors want to control the minds of the young. Students who read learn to think. Thinkers learn to see. Those we see often question. And young people who question often threaten the ‘blind’ and the ‘non-thinkers (Shupe, n.d.).” Banning materials and censoring literature, history, and texts from public schools is harmful to the core education of the nation’s youth. A reasonable alternative to removing certain materials entirely is to carefully build age-appropriate curriculum which addresses issues and subject matter at the comprehension level of the students.
Most importantly, what exactly is censorship? According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), censorship is the “suppression of words, images, or ideas that are “offensive,” or otherwise considered inappropriate, irrelevant, or harmful to the culmination of ideas or morality, politics, religion, or a specified group of people (“What is censorhip?,” 2006). From the removal of religion in public schools (or the ‘separation of church and state’) to the omitting of scientific theories such as evolution, censors act in some ways to protect or control their audience, although one can only assume that the intention in doing so is noble. A censor can be a teacher, parent, supervisor, peer, and in some cases, people self-censor to protect themselves from what they fear to be harmful information, or disseminating information perceived to be detrimental.
Dr. Kenneth Strike, an educator and doctor of philosophy and ethics, has devoted a majority of his career investigating the psychology and makeup of censorship in education, and its results and effects on the intellect of impressionable youth. Dr. Strike refers to the arena of public education as the “marketplace of ideas” which promotes “inquiry and growth (Strike, 1985, p. 240)” In this marketplace, the first and most important notable idea is that reasonable or lucid curiosity is most welcome in an environment which promotes and allows the opportunity to openly pursue varying viewpoints or philosophies, and has an open door policy to discussion and decision-making (Strike, 1985). When evaluating the current situation within the American public school system, it is evident that although we are a forward-thinking and liberal society (in comparison to countries like China and Russia, which are heavily censored), there are many layers of red tape preventing children from learning valuable lessons due to restrictions placed on the content of their educational materials.
Developmentally, analysts are concerned with the adverse effects of complete censorships not only in an educational setting, but in the media as well. Arguably, children will develop into adults who will have to cope with and experience the real world, free of most authoritative censorship. Legally, it is arguable that censorship in public education is an inflammatory violation of the First Amendment right to free speech and expression. Marjorie Heins (2002), founder of the Free Expression Policy Project and litigator, explains the legal ramifications of censorship summarily: “This First Amendment protection is not simply a legal technicality to be overcome if possible by laws or policies cleverly crafted to avoid constitutional pitfalls. The right to explore art and ideas is basic to a free society. Without it, children and adolescents cannot grow into the thoughtful, educated citizens who are essential to a functioning democracy (Heins & Cho, 2002)” It is arguable that although educators may determine the content of the curriculum that is presented to students with the best of intentions, it may not always allow students to focus on the core of their studies: how to exist and succeed in the world and understand how to do so.
Intellectually, the harm done by eliminating subject matter is far more detrimental. Students of all ages will develop on their own natural curve, and removing context from their studies would also remove their cognitive and reasoning abilities. Challenged frequently (as reported by the American Library Association) by schools and school boards, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain has made an enormous impact on the anti-racism message of classic literature (“Top 100 banned/challeneged”). Controversial for its consistent use of the word “nigger,” many schools ban this book from being introduced to the classroom. Author and professor Dr. Allen Carey-Webb has observed the behaviors of students introduced to this material as segregating (1993). In his research, he determined that in some cases, the fiction created an uncomfortable rift between African American and Caucasian students within the classroom, perhaps because of the sticker shock of seeing this word so freely throughout the novel, and their lack of comfortability and familiarity with the content (Carey-Webb, 1993, p. 23). Perhaps if they were simply better prepared by their educators on the content of the material and the history of racism, the truly important message of anti-racism would be better understood and appreciated. This will also alleviate the pressure on educators to censor themselves from presenting material which can be challenged, despite believing that the context is relevant to development, as is the growing case within English departments across the nation (Agee, 199). Will those children learn to understand the concept of racism, and its complex multi-cultural history and lessons if they are never exposed to the issues themselves? This is a clean example of material that should also only be presented to an age-appropriate audience, such as middle and high school aged children capable of comprehending the material to begin with.
There is a common ground with which to curb the need to cut out so much beneficial content, without eliminating the message and lessons of the context. Schools, teachers, librarians and parents can safeguard their children from unnecessary exposure to content they may not be able to comprehend, or which may adversely affect them, such as sex or excessive violence. If public schools were more judicious about curriculum-building per age group, parents and educators may find themselves able to teach material which will allow for the appropriate development of cognitive skills per age group, without fearing unsavory information or literature from “tainting” the thought process. As children grow older, they are better able to grasp more complex concepts in history, science, and literature, and can be introduced at a suitable pace in addition to curriculum which properly introduces the setting and meaning of the work. It is prohibitive to deny students in the public school system the right to experience cultural, scientific, and literary work, such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or the study of evolution, or the Holocaust. Such integral parts of our history, as well as the history of the world cannot go untouched in public schools, or the future of our own nation will be poorly educated to handle the world around them with temperance and tolerance. If we as educators, parents, and peers carefully monitor the pace with which we are disposing children and adolescents, it is possible to bridge the gap between what we feel is morally repugnant and we feel is a morally sound lesson at the appropriate time to learn it.
Agee, J. (1999). The effects of censorship on experienced high school english teachers. Retrieved from http://www.albany.edu/cela/publication/article/censor.htm
Carey-Webb, A. (1993). Racism and “huckleberry finn”: Censorship, dialogue, and change. The English Journal, 82(7), 22-34. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/819788
Heins, M., & Cho, C. (2002). Media literacy: An alternative to censorship. Retrieved from http://www.ntia.doc.gov/legacy/ntiahome/ntiageneral/cipacomments/pre/fepp/medialiteracy.htm
Shupe, J. (n.d.). Censoring the english curriculum. Retrieved from http://www.cedu.niu.edu/~shumow/itt/CensoringEnglishCurriculum.pdf
Strike, K.A. (1985). A field guide of censors: toward a concept of censorship in public
schools. Teachers College Record, 87(2), 239-258.
Top 100 banned/challenged books: 2000-2009. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/banned/frequentlychallenged/challengedbydecade/2000_2009/index.cfm
What is censorship?. (2006, August 30). Retrieved from http://www.aclu.org/free-speech/what-censorship