The Best Defense of a Democratic Nation

Banned and Challenged Books, Censorship

Last night I was scrolling through Facebook and I stumbled across this: 

Image of carving: “the public school is the best defense of a democratic nation” followed by the caption: “not sure where this ‘parents should control what is taught in schools because they are our kids’ is originating, but parents do have the option to choose to send their kids to a hand selected private school at their own expense if that is what they desire.  The purpose of a publication education in a public school is not to teach kids only what parents want them to be taught. It is to teach them what society needs them to know. The client of the public school is not the parent, but the enter community, the public.

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

  1. to provide universal access to free education,
  2. to guarantee equal opportunities for all children,
  3. to unify a diverse population,
  4. to prepare people for citizenship in a democratic society,
  5. to prepare people to become economically self-sufficient, and
  6. 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. 

 Stop Learning displayed on a laptop screen in front of a bookshelf

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.


  • I cannot agree with most of this article. I particularly object to the idea that parents are somehow illegitimate participants in public education or should ‘go somewhere else’ (‘at their own expense’) if they don’t care for the content of public education. Am I free to stop paying my school taxes? The answer of course is no; if I do that then in due course an armed county sheriff’s deputy will come and evict my family and I from our home and attach a padlock to the door. It’s a strange sort of freedom that Lisa Hoover is offering where my options are to shut up or be rich enough to opt out.

    If parents and families are not ‘the public” intended to be benefited by public education then it’s a rather narrowed and pinched ‘public’ we are talking about. What is this ‘public’ that no family with any doubts about their public school curriculum has any right to be a part of?

    Schools adopting these new, strange curricula have no particular track record of doing better than they did before. But at least plenty of diversity consultants are making a mint, the libraries are properly stocked with sexually explicit books, and most of the student body is being reminded that they are evil oppressors at age 11.

    The notion that parents are nothing but obstreperous dolts and rubes for having doubts about any of this is ridiculous.

    –Jeremy Cusker, MLS

  • Hi Jeremy,

    Thanks for the comments; of course parents get a say – they can voice their opinion just like everyone else, and they can control what their kids do in the privacy of their home. The point I am concerned with is that some parents want to decide for everyone – when we insist that a book we don’t like or a topic we don’t believe in not be taught or be removed from the shelves, we’re insisting that no one’s kids can read it or learn about it, and that’s a different thing than telling your own child what they can’t check out, or teaching them at home that you don’t believe in climate change (as an example).

    That’s the primary concern I have with demands that books be removed from shelves or that we not teach certain topics that have become politicized regardless of expert consensus. When we’re dealing with public education, we need to do the best we can based on current evidence and research and we can’t shy away from topics just because they’ve become politicized (I saw someone recently who was upset that their child was being taught about how vaccines work, for example).

    My point with regard to private education is that if you really strongly do not want your child exposed to opposing viewpoints and current societal perspectives and understandings, that’s what private education is for. Public education has to be about what’s the best for society as a whole, based on current understandings and research; by definition public requires some level of consensus and cannot necessarily cater to every belief no matter how small or unsupported by evidence. As I mentioned above, parents ought to be augmenting this with their own discussions, reading to their kids, etc. at home. That’s where personal family perspectives and beliefs come in, in my view.

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