Last night I was scrolling through Facebook and I stumbled across this:
Given all the controversy regarding censorship in schools recently (see here, here, here, here and here for a few examples), this got my mental wheels spinning. The combination librarian and political scientist in me was interested in the idea, and the librarian in me wondered how much truth was in this argument: sure, the parallels and connections were obvious, but what about historical context? I of course did the librarian thing and poked around.
The Center on Education Policy (CEP) states that public education has traditionally been expected to “accomplish certain collective missions aimed at promoting the common good” including creating “responsible citizens, forging a common culture….and reducing inequalities.” They also mention “active citizenship in a democratic society.”
The CEP traces the call for a public school system back to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, among others. Jefferson proposed a public school system as early as 1779. The idea really gained traction in the 1830s, though. These schools would be publicly funded, locally governed and would offer a “common curriculum” to all students which, it was believed, would benefit everyone. Compulsory attendance laws came in the early 1900s; all states had compulsory attendance laws by 1918, according to the CEP.
The CEP argues the mission of public schools is
- to provide universal access to free education,
- to guarantee equal opportunities for all children,
- to unify a diverse population,
- to prepare people for citizenship in a democratic society,
- to prepare people to become economically self-sufficient, and
- to improve social conditions.
Looking at this, it seems that both in contemporary society and at the time public schools originated there has traditionally been a strong societal and common good component to public education, which does support the idea that it is not all about what the parents want.
However, this does arguably create tension with the interests of each specific child. However, I think when we look at these goals as a whole that tension is minimal. The first mission promises universal access – content neutral. It doesn’t promise any specific content or view, just that each child will have access. “Equal opportunity” arguably requires that each child be prepared to function in the world as it is, regardless of their individual background or beliefs. This would also, presumably, best allow them to be economically self-sufficient – a child with little or no exposure to reality is going to lack important skills for employment, at least in many cases. This would also be reinforced by the idea of “unifying” the population by giving access to the same information – hopefully the best information we as a society have to offer at this current moment. What each child does with that information, ultimately, is a separate issue. And then, of course, the ideas of citizenship and improvement of the social condition certainly imply collective goals.
Yes, parents still have a strong say in how their child is raised – the courts have been clear about this, although it can be murky when we get into litigating the “best interests” of a child (usually seen most often in custody and parental rights cases, see here). However, I think what gets lost in the parents rights versus academic freedom debate is that what children are being given in school is information and ideas – they don’t have to subscribe to those ideas wholesale. And they are, presumably, also being introduced to their parents’ ideas and values just as – probably more – strongly than those of their teachers, even assuming teacher’s are sharing their particular viewpoint.
School is not – and cannot – force your child to believe in evolution or climate change or systemic racism or rights for same sex couples. What they can – and should – do is introduce your child to the idea of these things and the evidence related to them. If you believe this information doesn’t reconcile with your worldview, you also can – and should – take an active role in educating your child. Your child then has multiple perspectives and lots of information and can make up their own mind, and the skills to do that should be a primary goal of both the formal educational system in school and the informal education they get at home.
Unfortunately for librarians, a large part of this debate often centers on what kids are/should be reading, leaving libraries front and center for concerned parents, especially school libraries. Libraries can work to create strong relationships with school boards (and diplomatically educate them on why censorship is problematic, ideally before a problem arises), have a strong collection development policy, and be prepared to point patrons to the Library Bill of Rights and the importance of not controlling what other people’s children read. Ultimately the problem with censorship (among other things) is it removes choice for others – both students and parents. And, when facing a challenge, reach out to the Office for Intellectual Freedom for support.
Ultimately, though, I think we as a society need to take a step back and remember that educators know how to educate, and we should trust them to do that, supplemented with at home support. If we don’t, there are options like private school or home school. I think we also need to get back to the assumption that censorship is generally bad policy in any context – the default position should be no censoring what people read, and we should only deviate from that in extreme circumstances. Kids are different, but we are preparing them to be adults and – most importantly – to be citizens. I for one want our future citizens to be well and broadly read.
Lisa Hoover is a public services librarian at Clarkson University and an adjunct professor in criminal justice at SUNY Canton. In addition to her MLS, Lisa holds a JD and an MA in political science. She began her career as an editor and then manager for a local news organization, adjunct teaching in her “spare time.” She teaches courses in criminal procedure, criminal law and constitutional law. She is passionate about First Amendment issues. She recently began her career as a librarian, starting at Clarkson University in June 2017, teaching information literacy sessions and offering reference services. Lisa and her husband Lee live in Norwood, New York, with their cats Hercules and Pandora, and pug-mix Alexstrasza (Alex).