(When) Should curriculum changes be called censorship?

Censorship, education

By: Kate Lechtenberg

red apple atop a stack of books

Education scholars have long recognized that choices about what knowledge is selected for inclusion in a curriculum have and always will be political. Michael Apple (1995) describes the non-neutral nature of the curriculum choices:

“The curriculum is never simply a neutral assemblage of knowledge, somehow appearing in the texts and classrooms of a nation. It is always part of a selective tradition, someone’s selection, some group’s vision of legitimate knowledge. It is produced out of the cultural, political, and economic conflicts, tensions, and compromises that organize and disorganize a people.”

Those tensions run high in today’s hyper-partisan political environment, and so changes in the curriculum often make the news, often including questions–both subtle and direct–about whether such curriculum changes can be described as censorship.

How do we distinguish between curricular change and censorship? While I don’t have clear answers, examining recent case studies can help us clarify the line between curricular change and censorship, just as Asheim clarified the relationship between selection and censorship. First, let’s start with some definitions.

Definitions: What is censorship? What is curriculum?

The ALA defines censorship within its extensive resources on Intellectual Freedom

Censorship is the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons — individuals, groups, or government officials — find objectionable or dangerous. It is no more complicated than someone saying, “Don’t let anyone read this book, or buy that magazine, or view that film, because I object to it!” Censors try to use the power of the state to impose their view of what is truthful and appropriate, or offensive and objectionable, on everyone else. Censors pressure public institutions, like libraries, to suppress and remove information they judge inappropriate or dangerous from public access, so that no one else has the chance to read or view the material and make up their own minds about it. The censor wants to prejudge materials for everyone.

While explicate statements that forbid the teaching of certain ideas are rare (but do exist for issues like LGBTQ issues), ideas like suppression, the power of the state, pressure to institutions, and prejudging materials are complicated both because of their subjectivity and because the definition of curriculum is also contested.

Education scholars Woods, Luke, and Weir (2010) describe curriculum as “the sum total of resources” brought together by a variety of stakeholders for teaching and learning purposes. This definition includes a vast array of both explicit curriculum documents and instructional materials, as well as the implicit curriculum (that which is implied through curriculum choices of individual teachers or schools) and the null curriculum (that which taught through the exclusion of certain topics within a curriculum).antique hanging scales tipped to the right

Under this broad definition of curriculum, changes happen all the time for a variety of reasons and aren’t always concrete or clearly documented; each change cannot and should not be labeled as censorship.  However, might there be some changes that might be motivated by the suppression of some ideas or the state’s effort to pressure institutions or prejudge materials? As I consider some recent case studies in curricular changes that have made the news, these definitions will help us sharpen the line between curricular change and censorship. While it may not be explicit censorship, there is certainly ideological force at work–and bringing that under scrutiny is a move toward greater intellectual freedom for students and teachers alike.

Texas, Hillary Clinton, and Hellen Keller: Curriculum changes or censorship?

Recently, the Texas school board’s decision to eliminate Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller from the list of required historical figures about whom students must learn has made headlines.  Donna Bahorich, chair of the Texas State Board of Education, argues that the changes were made in order to “streamline” the “extensive requirements,” and that any effort to shorten the required list of historical figures and topics would be criticized.

Indeed, Jonna Perillo, professor of English education at the University of Texas El Paso notes, that while reducing the requirements in the curriculum is a wise step that promotes deeper learning rather than superficial content coverage, the Texas Board of Education’s recent decisions are in line with a history of conservative and religious influences on curriculum. Likewise, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank offered a scathing critique of the changes, calling it “the perfect curriculum for the Trump age”.

Is this censorship? As Bahorich notes, the list of required subjects is “a floor for instruction, not a ceiling,” and does not prohibit instruction about Clinton, Keller, or the many other people or topics that were removed from the required list. So this is not the explicit “Don’t read this book!” example that the ALA’s definition calls out.  However, Perillo’s argument moves much closer to the claim that the state of Texas has a history of efforts to use “the power of the state to impose their view of what is truthful and appropriate.” I would argue that Texas’s itemized approach to curriculum knowledge reflects a preoccupation with endorsing certain knowledge over others and could be avoided by adopting a less prescriptive approach to the curriculum as a whole.

Is this censorship? More case studies in literature, ethnic studies, and LGBTQ issues

Texas isn’t the only state whose curriculum changes are featured in the news, with headlines that imply or explicitly describe such changes as censorship.  Let’s take these one one by one:

  • Close Up view of Male Hand Touching Yellow Case Study Computer Button. 3D.Last winter, Duluth Public Schools removed To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from its required reading lists for high school English language arts courses. Similar to the Texas case, Duluth administrators noted that the books can still be taught even though they are no longer required.  Although press reports claim that change was not in response to a specific book challenge, the local NAACP and other community members have raised concerns about racial slurs in the book for years.  In addition, teachers raised questions about why they were not included in the curriculum review process, since they are experts in literary selection.
    • Is this censorship? If press reports are accurate that the decision was not made in response to a specific challenge but were instead a more general move to respond to the curriculum in light of the district’s equity work, then I would disagree with the NCAC’s argument that the district’s reconsideration process should have been instituted. Instead,  I would raise questions about academic freedom concerning teacher’s exclusion from the process, as well as questions about transparency concerning the administrators’ articulation of how the decision related to previous challenges.
      • Acknowledging my bias: As a former English teacher and literacy education scholar, I support the Duluth schools’ move (assuming press reports aren’t skirting around a breach of policy) on teacher autonomy and student choice grounds. I am also influenced by my support of selecting literature by authors of color over literature by white authors when slavery, racism, and institutional discrimination are key parts of the literary selection, as they often are with To Kill a Mockingbird and Huck Finn.
  • Tucson Public School’s eight-plus year legal battle over the Mexican American Studies Program, which was declared by a U.S. District judge to be unconstitutional because he found that there was discriminatory intent in the Arizona legislation that banned such courses.
    • Is this censorship? The judge’s finding that the legislation was indeed racially motivated means that this curricular change was indeed censorship. The fact that this case went through the legal system gives us the benefit of perceived “certainty,” since Pico vs. Island Trees found that schools cannot remove books simply because they do not like their viewpoint.  Emily Knox examines the assumptions about the books that were banned as part of the MAS case in more detail.
  • GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) reports that Alabama, Texas, Arizona, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Mississippi all have so-called “No Promo Homo” laws that require health and sex education educators to avoid “promoting” LGBTQ issues, and they sometimes require that teacher do not discuss LGBTQ issues at all or that they expressly condemn these “lifestyles.” While many of these laws are specific to health and sex ed topics, their effect is often felt in a larger culture of stigmatization that results in these schools, harming LGBTQ students.
    • Is this censorship? The state’s power to impose a particular viewpoint is clear here, though since the focus is not on library or instructional books, these laws may not attract the attention of librarians. (…though I’m guessing that there are many librarians and other educators in these states who fight against these biased laws!)
  • Idaho’s well-publicized battle over reinstate climate science in its curriculum, after the state legislature had eliminated mention of human causes of climate change last year.  On the other end of the spectrum, Portland Public Schools made news with its resolution that schools should “abandon the use of any adopted text material that is found to express doubt about the severity of the climate crisis or its root in human activities.” Both of these curricular changes have been labeled as censorship in the press, the former for excluding discussion of human causes and the latter for what some called an overly rigid resolution dictating the language around climate science in textbooks
    • Is this censorship? Idaho’s move last year to remove mention of the human causes of climate change was clearly censorship of a particular set of ideas, and the restoration of scientifically sound research in the curriculum is an important development.  On the other hand, although Portland Public Schools’ resolution was clearly moving to exclude certain textbooks, doing so on the basis of scientific research is less about censoring scientific views and more about ensuring the academic validity of a curriculum.  However, I would argue that this instance reflects an administrative over-reach; a curriculum director or science coordinator in the district might have pursued these clarifications (which would most certainly be supported by the majority of qualified science teachers) through professional development and discipline-specific work.  In this case, action by the board might have placed a political taint over an otherwise established matter of disciplinary content knowledge. 

There are no easy answers in these scenarios, and often, the label of censorship thrown about in the media serves more to politicize and enflame than to move toward solutions and greater intellectual freedom for all. Instead of relying on the label of censorship to discourage curricular changes guided by politics, power, or lack of transparency, we need to rely on rigorous analysis of the curriculum choices themselves and the institutions that create and implement them.  And that is a much harder task than writing a provocative headline.

I’d love to hear alternate interpretations on these cases of curriculum change and censorship in the comments–please share your thoughts!

 


Kate LechtenbergKate Lechtenberg is a doctoral student in Language, Literacy, and Culture in the University of Iowa’s College of Education. After working in public schools for fourteen years as a high school English teacher and school librarian, her doctoral research now focuses on text selection, multicultural literature, educational standards, and equity initiatives. Kate teaches a young adult literature course in the College of Education and a school librarian course on print and digital collection management in the School of Library and Information Science. She is also a member of the AASL Standards Implementation Task Force. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.

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