Censorship vs. Selection in the Curriculum

Q: The English department at my high school has been discussing removing several titles from the summer reading list and curriculum and replacing them with less controversial novels. Is there anything that can be done to prevent the department and administrators from censoring their choices as they consider books for the curriculum and reading lists?

Good for you for trying to influence this unfortunate process.

We are sometimes stunned by the naivete behind the assumption that challenges can be avoided by making “safe” or “less controversial” choices.

There is an age-old adage regarding intellectual freedom and censorship that we see proven true over and over again: It’s impossible to predict what might offend someone. Those who do try to do so not only are at risk of missing the mark (because it might be something seemingly innocuous that proves the tipping point) but they are also at risk of making decisions on the basis of what they IMAGINE some would-be censor MIGHT do. They’ve turned over power to someone who may or may not exist, and discredited the members of their community in the process.

Not only do we challenge anyone to show us a book that doesn’t have the potential to raise an eyebrow or offend someone, we also wonder: Do schools really want to make curriculum choices based on what they think is least likely to offend parents and other adults rather than on what will best serve students?

We want to add that it is one thing to be aware of potential areas of concern in a book in order to better prepare an informed rationale for using it (and perhaps defending). It is something very different to use potential areas of concern as a rationale for NOT teaching a book. One is good preparation. The other is censorship.

So we have two suggestions: First, encourage the English department staff to focus on making the best choices to meet their curriculum goals and preparing a rationale regarding why they have made those choices.

Second, encourage them to communicate about the choices they have made. We don’t necessarily mean they need to list why each and every book was chosen, but whether it’s a summer reading list or a list of titles that will be assigned throughout the year, they should make clear that the books being taught or suggested reflect a wide range of topics, some of which are mature, and includes both classic and contemporary literature. Then talk about how the list as a whole ties into curriculum goals and objectives for educating students to become experienced readers, critical thinkers and analyzers, and any other good stuff they can point to that connects the books to the learning goals that have been set.

We talk a bit more about this communication piece (and the myth of the controversy-free book) in this response.

November 2012