President’s Corner, July 2023 – Fomenting Polarization: Book Censorship in Public Education
by Marta Tienda, AAPSS President
Recently, Amanda Gorman’s magnificent poem “The Hill We Climb,” famously delivered at President Biden’s inauguration, was placed on a restricted book list in Florida. It joins a growing list of titles that have been removed from school libraries, and its restriction is a deeply dismaying example of censorship for the sake of political expedience. PEN America, an organization that defends free expression and literature, has identified over 4,000 titles that either have been removed from circulation—or outright banned—from classrooms or school libraries since 2022. Because many challenged titles go unreported, the American Library Association (ALA) suggests that the real number may be much higher. Although restricted titles differ across states and districts, this surge in censorship largely involves books about race, gender, sexuality, and LGBTQ+ identities.
The current trend of book censorship in public schools began as isolated challenges initiated by lone parents, but it has grown into a movement, orchestrated under the banner of parents’ rights to decide what students can read. New statutes in Florida and Texas empower censorship groups, like Moms for Liberty, to petition school boards to remove titles. In Texas, Governor Abbott directed state agencies to develop criteria to identify books with “pornography and other obscene content” and to ban them from school libraries. Jurisprudence about obscene content exempts all forms of child pornography from First Amendment protection, but the titles in question do not rise to that standard. The Texas Education Agency guidelines stipulate that districts should notify parents of new book selections, that parents should be consulted about what their students can or cannot read, and that parents should have a voice in the selection of assigned books. After the Florida legislature passed the Parental Rights in Education Act, the state’s Department of Education encouraged parents to register objections about course content and library materials with school principals or with a designated special magistrate.
I have no quarrel with parents restricting their own children’s reading material, provided that their decisions do not affect the options available to other parents’ children. Some parents and educators have begun to push back by filing lawsuits on the grounds that book censorship is unconstitutional, because the restrictions target specific viewpoints and infringe on students’ rights to information and knowledge. That the book-banning crusaders have targeted books with LGBTQ+ protagonists or with content about Black Lives Matter is unsurprising, given that they focus most often on narratives about race, gender, and sexuality. But I was stunned to learn that some classic books, such as The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger), The Grapes of Wrath (J. Steinbeck), To Kill a Mockingbird (H. Lee), and Beloved (T. Morrison), are now under fire, according to the ALA. In response to a query of mine about The Scarlet Letter, ChatGPT confirmed that the novel has faced challenges in some places, but that “banned book lists can vary depending on time, location, and cultural context.” This is small comfort in an age of hyper-polarization, where Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye ranked among the most banned books of 2022.
A more subtle—but equally pernicious—form of partisan censorship concerns the content of history textbooks. Education correspondent Dana Goldstein compared eight history textbooks used in Texas and California, the two largest textbook markets, and identified how publishers customize content to align with their markets’ dominant political ideologies. Both subtle and substantive differences, ranging from blatant omissions to qualifications of facts, influence what students do or do not learn about American history. For example, the California textbooks explain that some court rulings on the Second Amendment permit regulations on guns, while the same physical place in the Texas edition textbook is entirely blank. A more flagrant interstate disparity concerns references to housing discrimination, redlining, and restrictive covenants, which are omitted in texts read by Texas students.
As with outright book bans, curating historical facts to align with political ideology foments polarization by undermining students’ capacity for independent thought. The educational consequences of omitting events like the Tulsa Massacre—which was commemorated only in 2021, a century after its occurrence—and banning books will manifest in future college classrooms and ballot boxes across the nation. These developments represent a giant step backward in a nation once heralded for its leadership in education. Collectively and individually, we must use our voices to require even-handed disagreements based on verifiable facts about our common history and shared destiny, and heed Amanda Gorman’s poem about healing and the ongoing need “…to forge a union with purpose. / To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and / Conditions of man.”
Goldstein, Dana. “Two States, Eight American Textbooks. Two American Stories.” New York Times, January 14, 2020.
Gorman, Amanda. 2021. The Hill We Climb. January 20.