Parents and educators are at fisticuffs over book censorship. Unfortunately, the issue is often framed erroneously as “censorship.” What do they mean by that? Did they bother to check with organizations that devote resources to tracking the problem?
Apparently not, because the American Library Association (ALA) is absent from most discussions. They have a database that logs known instances of “book challenges.” All that means is that the availability of a book perturbed one or more parents, students, or educators. It does not mean that the book was successfully banned.
Estimating the scope of censorship
In any given year, ALA logs between 300 — 500 book challenges in America. But they say that they only capture 3 to 18% of the book challenges. That means there are approximately 7,500 book challenges per year. If each challenge occurred in a unique school, that would mean that only 5.7% of schools even had a single challenge (there are 131,000 secondary schools in America). The percentage is likely much lower, perhaps 2 — 3%, since schools with particularly contentious groups of parents and educators are likely to exploit precedents to challenge more than one book.
This should help civil libertarians relax. The scope of the content suppression is extraordinarily small. And remember, these are book challenges, not necessarily successful bans. Only 10% of the challenges result in actual bans.
Selection is the matter at hand — not censorship
California schools have 13,500 books per school on average. With an average of 5 copies for a title, we can estimate that 2,700 titles per school are available to students. How many books did you read that you actually chose outside of your assignments? I’d guess that students might be able to select between five and twenty books per year for themselves.
Selecting a few dozen books throughout their years in school out of 2,700 titles entails important decisions. Will your children learn from great thinkers like Cicero, Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Thomas Sowell, Frederick Douglass, and St. Thomas Aquinas? Or will they lower their bar to authors like Toni Morrison, the hordes of “diversity” authors, and other cultural arsonists of Frankfurt School derivative, who will train them to see the world through class, racial, sexual, and gender-divided lenses with a victim/oppressor dichotomy clanging in their heads?
Book bans have almost no impact on selection. Also, banning books can have unintended consequences. Book bans presume that the school library is the only place kids can get books. Many kids will choose to read a forbidden book just to see what upset adults so much about it. In that way, book bans act as powerful advertisements to encourage children to select the taboo book. They’ll just pick it up at another library, a friend’s collection, or any digital service, the same way our friends used to exchange tapes and books with each other.
Selection of content is not only constrained by what’s available at the school library. Children read four times as many books that are assigned to them by teachers, and often the banned book was not even assigned to students. So the teachers have a much stronger influence on our children’s information diet than book availability. When a challenged book is forced onto the child through curriculum, the curriculum itself is the source of the conflict, not the availability of the book.
In the rare moment when a student can actually choose a book outside of curricula for their own pleasure, they are limited by their free time like anyone else. What informs their decision? If parents and teachers have failed to inspire zeal for the classics and great thinkers of history, they have already deprived the children of their stepping-stones to greatness. It shouldn’t be difficult to do, for instance:
I understand you are deciding between Sun Tzu‘s Art of War, or Juno Dawson’s This Book Is Gay. I would encourage you to read the comment section of GoodReads for Dawson’s book. You will find dozens of LGBT people arguing over the author‘s attention to sexual identifications. You’ll find that they describe a book that teaches people about how gay people pleasure themselves with each other, and how to access random strangers for degrading throwaway sexual encounters. No employer will care about your skills in sexual activity unless something illicit is going on that could get you fired. The book is targeted towards insecure people who need to spend time in omphaloskepsis just to move forward with the normal activities of their life that you and I take for granted.
By contrast, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has taught military officers for millennia how to survive warfare and defend their civilizations. It will teach you logical approaches to strategy and tactics that can be abstracted outside of warfare as well. There are adaptations of The Art of War for business. Some day you might want to be a manager, a politician, an entrepreneur, a marketer, or you may even work in diplomacy or national security. Sun Tzu will give you knowledge that will open those doors a tad wider.
Which do you think is a wiser way to spend your time?
Just kidding of course. Nobody would ever write a letter like that. But elements of that letter could be discussed with a child. And a parent should have already instilled the morals and culture within their child so that they would assess the decision in the same way. Parents and educators should already be guiding children with similar rationale, to open their eyes to possibilities.
And what if a child is gay, and decides that they need some omphaloskepsis about their sexuality more than they need knowledge of strategy, tactics, and warfare? Does anyone believe that banning the book will stop their motivation to select books of the same kind? If they are conflicted about their sexuality, shouldn’t parents take a more proactive and personal role to help the child confront the discord? Banning the book is such a McDonalds-mentality cop-out. It’s not really food, but we can pretend that the person is actually eating. It’s too much work to take an active role in advising the child. Better that we remove a book from a library shelf so we can feel like we are doing something useful (sarcasm).
It’s patently absurd to think that the root of the unwilling-indoctrination problem is book availability. They should first ask, “Why is the child more interested in egocentric social hamster wheels than the knowledge that can lead them to great things in life? How did I fail them?”
Censorship is ubiquitous
If a person says that they don’t censor anything, they either lack abstraction or haven’t thought about the topic hard enough yet. Every parent, and every educator, through all of history has censored content each and every time they select curricula. There is only so much time in the year for studies. No person could possibly read it all.
Also, there is a matter of logistics. There are only so many bookshelves, and there is only so much money to buy books. Librarians curate books, with teams devoted to content selection. Journalists and celebrities put the limelight on many inane books fit for idiocracy, and in doing so, they “censor” great books by bleeding the public’s attention and limited time, redirecting it towards the garbage they found compelling. In the music business, it’s called “popularity bias,” which is a negative feedback loop.
The kind of overt censorship that deserves the literal word is not a common thing, as we have demonstrated. But the persistent “censorship” by selection and deselection of books for curricula is common. And finally there are influencing factors even for the child’s self-selection, in the rare moment that they actually choose what to read. The culture of parents, the topics of interest to journalists and entertainers, advertisements, marketing budgets, and celebrity promotion all influence children’s self-selection for all sorts of content.
When self-selection is followed by imposition
I am lucky that Gail Martin, the head of my gifted program, inspired zeal for the classics and great thinkers at a young age. When I reached my final year of high school I had to choose a literature course. My best friend who had already graduated, warned me that the AP English teacher was a hippie who forced students to read leftist novels.
My other option was World Literature and Advanced Composition, in which we would read many of the great writings from around the world, like Confucius, Dante’s Inferno, Paradise Lost, the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Epic of Gilgamesh, etc. In the second semester, we would master everything in Strunk and White, for Advanced Composition. I selected the gentle old lady who taught World Literature over the hippie Democrat activist of AP English. And with that choice, I was able to read many books that interested me.
But to demonstrate how impotent our choices are when they meet the hand of fate, I was required to take an honors English course at Virginia Tech my first year, since I did not choose AP English. The professor was a rail-thin Irish socialist who filled our assignments with books like The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. She was an even more biased Democrat activist than the AP English teacher. She gave me a B+ in the end, with comments on each grade that could be summarized as “I don’t like your style because you think like a conservative, even though I find nothing technically wrong with your writing and assessments.” It was the only non-engineering course in which I didn’t get an “A,” while barely having to apply myself at all. The liberal arts courses were all like child’s play compared to Vector Calculus and Continuum Mechanics.
In this short story, we should note the problematic thinking involved in book bans. Curriculum selection is the heart of wise educational stewardship, and can also be the source of biased indoctrination. Why should a student read The Jungle if the teacher doesn’t follow it up with Atlas Shrugged or The Road to Serfdom? The Irish socialist and the hippie teacher doled out a one-sided perspective, promoting neurotic leftist ideology, by selecting all of the books for their classes to gratify their Democrat activism. With that power, they were able to censor content much more profoundly than any library has ever done by constraining availability.
And Matt Kraus, a Republican Texas legislator, just handed a list of 850 leftist books to every single parent and teacher in the country. While children of conservative parents would likely never have selected those books to begin with, Democrat activist teachers and parents like the hippie and the Irish socialist very much appreciate Kraus giving them a roadmap for their curriculum. Children who are already indoctrinated with leftwing politics like a religion, will use the list in their private self-selection as well.
Stewardship is not optional
Adults will always select content for children. That’s why we have curricula. Adults will always guide children, providing options for them that could be beneficial, while protecting them from options that could do more harm than good. Educators act in loco parentis, which means that the parents should have the ultimate authority over what options are beneficial to their children. The problems with book bans is that the school system is not built for one family. There are many children with different needs, aptitudes, interests, and deficiencies and banning a book that could even help one of them is not a wise way to deselect content that is a waste of time or potentially corrupting for many students.
And whatever the child’s religious or political affiliation, it’s important to note that book bans target all perspectives - 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and This Book Is Gay by Dawson alike. Remember that these bans are rare, comprising only 10% of challenges which only occur in 3% of schools. Consequently, only 0.3% of schools have bans, or 3 in 1,000 schools. Sensationalizing these rare book bans actually takes the attention off of the real sources of censorship: curricula selection, and cultural influence for self-selection.
If parents want to reclaim their rightful authority over the curricula and content selection, they need to promote Alvarism’s tax-exemption for private and homeschooling, combined with expanded vouchers for school choice. As it stands, Americans are held hostage by the public school and school board model.
All citizens should be concerned about ineffective, overpriced schooling and low quality educational content. If they don’t have kids, they’re probably paying the tax bills for the school, and they’ll have to hire those kids in a few years. They’ll have to share an economy with miseducated adults. No man is an island, and there are great consequences for apathy towards education quality.
When schools have to compete with each other to offer the highest quality education, and parents can take their money to alternative schools, a few great things will happen:
Educators will actually have to succeed in order to keep their jobs
Specialization will increase, so that there are more options for children with particular needs (gifted, handicapped, emotionally challenged, average, STEM, creative)
The costs will decrease, as parents refuse to tolerate $40 million high school sports arenas (yes that happened)
Parents will no longer have to beg the school board to accommodate their children, they can simply move their children to another school, and ”vote with their dollars”
Educators will become more cooperative with the parents, answering to the power of their purse strings, rather than dismissing parents as irrelevant until they win favor with the school board. This cooperation will provide a powerful synergy that is often lacking between parents and teachers.
Stewardship is not optional. Children do not function without stewardship. Every adult “censors” content through the process of selection. But are they wise, moral, fair, and honest curators? Or are they neurotic, misguided, or corrupt curators with ulterior motives, like the hippie Democrat activist of AP English? It makes the difference between good stewards and bad stewards.