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Teaching in the Face of Book Bans

Creative ways educators can adjust their curriculum during "treacherous" times
Old book bound by lock and chain

In the second part of our series on helping educators navigate book challenges, Timothy Patrick McCarthy, historian and lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, encourages teachers to resist censorship efforts by taking control of their own curriculum in creative ways. In an interview, he shares historical perspective and advice for educators.

Why, from your disciplinary perspective, are book bans harmful?

As a historian, I know that people who ban books are never on the right side of history. During two and a half centuries of slavery in the United States, white elites routinely enacted laws prohibiting enslaved people from learning to read and write. The denial of literacy — and education, more broadly — was one of the many racist barriers to liberation for Black people. During the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s, book banners continued these kinds of repressive practices in new and dramatic ways. Students in the German Student Union and other Nazi conspirators staged public book burnings, where tens of thousands of books by Jewish, gay, and other dissident authors were destroyed. One of the most iconic photographs from that time depicts a book burning at the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin, where Magnus Hirschfeld and other scholars conducted groundbreaking studies on human sexuality. These are just two examples of the long history of knowledge destruction, which continues today in the accelerating and intensifying efforts to ban books and control curriculum throughout the United States. As the fugitive-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote of learning to read in his 1845 autobiography, “From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.” And that’s the point: Book banners (and burners) understand the threat that freedom and education for the oppressed poses to their own power and privilege, which is why they are still trying to deny these things by any means necessary.                

What advice can you offer educators about how to navigate or challenge book bans and other efforts to censor materials in schools and libraries?

These are treacherous times in education. We are living in an age of bullies where schools are once again in the crosshairs of the culture wars. In this context, to fight the forces of bigotry and censorship is as risky as it is urgent. For educators who can and want to take these risks, I would recommend several strategies: 

  • Practice what I call “protest pedagogy,” resisting attempts to ban books by taking control of your curriculum in creative ways.  I know this is easier said than done, especially in public schools that are subjected to restrictive state standards and reactionary public pressures. But it can be done. In this digital age, encourage your students to do outside and online research, discover alternative sources and archives, and choose their own topics for exploration and analysis. Give them direction verbally and virtually — as opposed to, say, in writing and in class — and allow them to incorporate creative forms (art, videos, podcasts, social media) into the work they submit for evaluation. Introduce them to primary documents and public libraries, inspire them to interview their elders and share their own stories, and interrogate the old texts in new ways. Organize DonorsChoose or GoFundMe campaigns so your friends can buy banned books for your classroom libraries — or better yet, get your friendly publishers to donate them. There are many ways to resist these unjust forces and policies by teaching around them.          
  • Build your collective power by connecting with the kindred people who are already doing this work all over the country. There are networks of students, teachers, and parents in some of the states with the most draconian policies and practices. (Florida, Texas, Tennessee.) There are also many of us in colleges and universities — as well as libraries and professional associations — who stand ready to support whatever efforts you are organizing in your schools and communities.    
  • Run for school board! In recent years, the forces fueling book bans and other attempts at curricular control have been successful in getting their representatives elected to school boards across the country. This gives them more power to censor what people teach and learn. Those of us who value free speech and critical thinking, who honor diversity and the right to an equitable education, who embrace the search for historical and scientific truth — we need to run for school board, too. And if we decide not to run, let’s find ways to support (and vote for) good candidates who do. We cannot cede any more power in the field of education to people who are persistently devoted to the nation’s miseducation.                 

"We don’t need to protect young people from the truth. We need to encourage them to be critical, curious, and compassionate." 

What advice do you have about how and when to teach controversial topics and books in the classroom that have been challenged or banned elsewhere?

As a general rule, topics and books get the reputation for being “controversial” because they contain truths that make people uncomfortable. One need only look at the most “popular” justifications for book bans: because they center characters who are Black, Brown, and queer and content that deals with LGBTQ+ or race matters. But it is never too early to teach people the truth. If society teaches our young people to be racist surely our schools can teach them the long history of racism and anti-racism in the United States. When it comes to “age appropriate” texts, I am inclined to leave that to the writers who write the books, publishers who publish them, teachers who teach them, the students who read them — and the scholars who have spent their careers studying various aspects of social identity formation and child development. The loud cries of “liberty” from people who want to censor free speech and deny the right to education ring hollow. We don’t need to protect young people from the truth. We need to encourage them to be critical, curious, and compassionate. We need to free them — and all of us — from the forces of fear, prejudice, and willful ignorance that are currently tearing the nation apart. 

What additional resources can you share with educators from your own or others’ work?

In different ways, two of my own books — The Radical Reader: A Documentary History of the American Radical Tradition and Reckoning with History: Unfinished Stories of American Freedom — challenge the “master narratives” to center a more inclusive history of the United States. I would also recommend The 1619 Project, History UnErased, Zinn Education Project, Facing History and Ourselves, and Making Gay History, all of which provide rich and diverse resources for teachers and learners interested in a more honest engagement with the American past and its connection to our collective present and future.

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