Observe "Banned Book Week" by Standing Up for Academic FreedomRoundup
tags: culture war, academic freedom, critical race theory
David Wippman is the president of Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Glenn Altschuler is a professor of American Studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
A year ago, a Pennsylvania school board voted to ban a long list of books and other materials relating to race and social justice. Among the banned books were children’s stories about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., the autobiography of Nobel laureate and youth activist Malala Yousafzai and CNN’s “Sesame Street” town hall on racism.
The ban was recently reversed in response to widespread criticism, but it is emblematic of an ongoing campaign by state and local officials around the country to dictate how K-12 and college and university educators and students address race, history and social justice.
Legislators in at least 27 states have proposed or enacted bans on teaching critical race theory and other so-called divisive concepts, with significant penalties attached. In Texas, a school board recently suspended and then voted not to renew the contract of a popular high school principal, apparently because he declared in a letter to the community that systemic racism is “alive and well.”
A violation of free speech and academic freedom, this effort is also a deeply dangerous assault on fundamental principles of teaching and learning.
Book banning in America has a long and inglorious history, going back to the 1600s, when books deemed offensive to Christianity were publicly burned. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the most popular novel of the 19th century, was banned throughout the Confederacy for its anti-slavery themes. In 1873, Congress passed the Comstock Act, which prohibited sending “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” materials through the mail, a definition deemed broad enough to include anatomy textbooks, “anything by Oscar Wilde, and even ‘The Canterbury Tales.’”
James Joyce’s “Ulysses” was banned in the 1920s, and a host of great works of literature have subsequently been banned. Such bans are eventually seen as ill advised, even absurd, but considerable harm can be done, especially in schools, while they’re in place.
As we have argued elsewhere, at the heart of the current efforts is deep-seated disagreement “over whether and to what extent racism is embedded in American history and institutions, how racism should be acknowledged and combatted, and who bears responsibility for ongoing racial discrimination and injustice.”
Many conservative legislators, school board members and parents object to all claims that racism in America is systemic, arguing instead that it is the product of individual bias. In opposition to anti-racist programs adopted in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the social justice reckoning it prompted, conservatives have urged instead, in then-President Donald Trump’s words, a “patriotic education.”
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