If Book Bans Continue, What’s Left on the Classroom Shelf?
Over the past year, more than 4 million students have had their reading freedom curtailed due to book bans. A report by PEN American reveals that these students are educated in 138 districts across 34 states and have had more than 5,000 books removed from classroom shelves, school buildings, and local libraries. Book removal is problematic enough; however, the types of books being banned is quite noteworthy. If legislators across this country continue treading this dangerous path, very few books will be left on the classroom shelf.
Despite students having a First Amendment right to learn, state and district lawmakers and so-called “parents’ rights” groups have been curtailing this right by focusing their attacks on books with LGBTQ+ characters and topics, books with African Americans as protagonists and primary antagonists, and books, articles, and primary sources on topics related to U.S. history, such as the Red Summer Massacres, which they have deemed controversial. According to the PEN report, 41% of the more than 5,000 books banned have been on topics related to the LGBTQ+ community and 40% of those banned featured protagonists and primary secondary characters of color. Such targeted banning decreases the representational balance of characters and cultures thus creating one-sidedness in student reading. Given the growing racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in public schools, students need to be reading widely and deeply, not reductively.
Historical complexity and accuracy have also come under fire and become factors in the increasing numbers of banned books. Our nation’s history is beautifully nuanced; however, many students across the country will never have the opportunity to learn about it honestly. Instead, right-wing extremists have delegitimized the term “critical race theory,” a very real collegiate approach to understanding systemic racism and power structure in society, and have obfuscated its meaning to fabricate fights using the misnomer, prompting lawmakers and family groups to rally together to ensure topics related to slavery, institutional racism, and other “isms” are not taught. Instead, students are relegated to an ahistorical curriculum whereby the comfort of White students (or rather, their parents) supersedes learning about the travesties of slavery or any topic or story where White people are portrayed in a negative light.
Take for example, the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Students in the aforementioned 34 states would learn that President Lincoln was a champion of liberty and freedom because he signed the document ending slavery; however, they would be robbed of learning about Lincoln’s reluctance to freeing enslaved people and that he had no intention in actually doing so. Students would not get the opportunity to grapple with the nuance in Lincoln’s decision-making because such documents and readings are being removed. Meanwhile, despite the majority of U.S. student body being students of color, no such care is given to the emotional safety of Black and brown, LGBTQ+ children, or students from low-income backgrounds.
Ed Trust rejects the curtailing of students learning accurate and honest U.S. history. We also believe that the lives of students of color and other underserved students need to be represented in the books they read and are exposed to in the classroom. That’s why we have embarked on an extensive curricula review of how children of color are represented in children’s and middle grade books. We examined more than 250 books from five major publishers and found that while texts may have characters of color, these characters are stereotypically represented. We also found that White characters were the primary protagonists, were depicted with more agency, and were the primary voices in historical texts. In a few months, we will release our findings, with the goal of guiding curriculum publishers to ensure that the texts they produce are representative of the rich and diverse culture that our nation has to offer, and that all children can be empathetic to multiple perspectives that will afford them opportunities to develop deeper understandings and connections between and among historical events, especially those that may offer a less than positive image of our country.
Measures taken to ban books also leave schools unable to achieve the academic outcomes they desire for their students. Take Florida, which has the second highest rate of banned books in the nation, right behind Texas. What’s most disturbing about the sheer volume of banned books is that individual parents make up the smallest group raising concerns while vocal conservative groups comprise the loudest critics. So, the key question becomes, if states are charged with overseeing the education of all their children, why is it that a minority voice gets to decide what someone else’s child gets to read?
As states continue to take a reductive stance on books, they jeopardize the future of our citizenry. Not only is reading fundamental, but it is a core tenet of our democracy. Students need to be able to engage in critical thinking and see the world through multiple perspectives. But this will not happen and if state leaders continue to center a narrow-minded understanding of who and what America has been, who this country truly represents, which sets us up to be less free — creating a future where there is indeed very little of merit left on the classroom shelf.