Challenging a Book in Your School

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There are many educators who believe that when parents question something being taught in the classroom, it's meddling. When parents ask to have something's censorship! But, is it? To hear certain groups tell it, you'd conclude that Hitler is alive and well and lurking in the wings of Hooterville High School. 


The word "censorship" as it applies, or is misapplied, to school issues seems hard to define. The dictionary defines a censor as, "one authorized to examine material, as literature or plays, and remove or suppress anything considered objectionable." If that definition were applied to a school district, every school board member, administrator, and educator would be a censor. They are all authorized to examine material and suppress (by not choosing) all kinds of books and programs to which students could be exposed. 

Even the pros struggle with applying censorship to classroom situations. Edward B. Jenkinson who served as the chairman of the National Council of Teachers of English's Committee Against Censorship takes a stab at clarifying the issue for us in his book Censors In The Classroom: The Mind Benders. He not only falls short in his attempt, he admits defeat in the introduction of the book: 

"I, too, am a censor. I do not permit my daughter to watch certain television shows because they are filled with crime and violence. I do not want her to read certain literary works because I believe that she is not yet ready for them. As a parent, I feel that I have a moral obligation to be concerned about what my child sees and reads." (p.xvi) 

Recognizing that his book would be pretty short if he left it at that, Mr. Jenkinson goes on: 

"On the other hand, I know I do not have the right to impose my standards on the other children in her class or in the nation. I must live with the constant uncertainty that by denying her the right to read or see anything, I may be seriously limiting her education. I do not know exactly what is best for my child — I can only try to provide what I think is right. But the public censor apparently knows what is best for all children." 

Now, I'm not picking on Mr. Jenkinson, but after all, he did write the book. The whole problem of censorship in the classroom is a clash between private and public censorship. 

When Mr. Jenkinson sends his daughter to the public school, he must decide whether or not his "moral obligation" extends into the classroom. If it is truly an obligation, he must inject himself into that classroom. Otherwise he, or any other parent, must alter his sense of moral obligation by stating, "I feel that I have a moral obligation to be concerned about what my child sees and reads...except in school; then, anything is acceptable." Not much of an obligation, is it? 

The question of "moral obligation" also goes on in the mind of the teacher. She is the "imposer" of values ranging from conduct, hygiene, speech, academics, and, yes, what is valuable for children to read. And, yet, she is only one person, just like a parent. When a parent questions the validity of a book in school, we call it a censorship challenge. But when the teacher does it, we call it part of the job. Maybe censorship is part of the job! 

So, What is Censorship? 

Reason causes me to conclude that to be an educator is to be a censor. The word "censor" has become a bad word. It is used today to emotionalize a situation. It never clarifies an issue. It is only used to paint one group of people as the "bad guys." There is nothing wrong with the word. The problem is with what we now think of when we hear the word. When I say, to be an educator is to be a censor, I mean that the very process of education chooses one thing over another, sometimes for logical reasons and more often because of personal biases. 

To be fair, schools cannot have it both ways. Educators shouldn't describe what a parent wants to do in seeking to remove a book as censorship and describe what schools do every day as selection. 

The only suitable definition of a censor is the one found in the dictionary: "one authorized to examine material, as literature or plays, and remove or suppress anything considered objectionable." Some dictionaries refer to suppressing things for the "public good." The very act of teaching is the act of promoting that which is good and ignoring that which is objectionable. 

Determining what is good and what is objectionable is where the conflict arises. Public education by its very design cannot avoid these conflicts. If it could, it would neither be public nor education. 

Four Book Selection Guidelines You Can Suggest to Teachers

1. Does it violate your school's handbook on profanity? If a student can't say it in the halls, why does he have to read it in the classroom? Look, in the real world lots of people use foul language, but if we don't like it we can walk away. In a compulsory education system with an assigned reading a student is forced to read it. Why do that? Even if the book is just on a reading list, you have to ask yourself, "With 50,000 books published every year, is this the best stuff we can recommend?" 

2. Would the teacher read the book out loud in public? If the book has a sexually explicit or gratuitously violent passage that seems so relevant to student angst or sexual tension, would the teacher be willing to read it at the next school board meeting or PTA? Could he give it to a school board member and ask her to read it out loud? If he thinks it might be embarrassing, maybe he needs to think twice about letting minors read it. Another thought: Is the teacher assuming students are more mature than they really are? They seem sophisticated in the way they talk and dress, but they may not be emotionally ready for a certain book's content. 

3. Does the book represent the most noble and most inspiring literature students can read? They'll probably spend most of their lives reading uninspiring stuff (if they read much at all). Now's the chance to lift their sights a little higher. 

4. Is the book the only one that will teach to the objective? Can the teacher satisfactorily defend why he chose the book and rejected (censored) any other possibilities? Can he reach his objective with another book and, thus, satisfactorily address parents' concerns? 

© 2012-2016, Eric Buehrer