Librarian Christina Connor and Professor Ed Shannon presented an event on Sept. 22 in honor of Banned Books Week about the little-known topic of textbook censorship. Connor guided the audience through the history of textbook censorship, emphasizing both the importance of textbooks in a well-rounded education and the dangers of limiting the points of view presented within them.
The event, sponsored by the Ramapo State Federation of College Teachers (AFT 2274), opened first with a discussion about censorship of books in general. Shannon, president of AFT 2274, introduced some basic facts about book bans.
The American Library Association (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom saw 729 challenges to school and library materials in 2021. 82% of those challenges were to books, graphic novels and textbooks, especially ones “by or about BIPOC and LGBTQ+ persons.”
Shannon explained that he got the idea for this event from a conference about censorship he attended over the summer. An LGBTQ+ elementary school teacher from Florida shared his story about how the Parental Rights in Education Bill, otherwise known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, meant he couldn’t so much as mention his husband in the classroom.
“I was struck that what was being censored was people,” Shannon said. It inspired him to bring the discussion about censorship to Ramapo College’s campus. This event, titled “Not Suitable for School: A Textbook Example of Censorship,” is the first of a series that Shannon hopes to continue throughout the semester.
Connor, who is also a book historian, started her talk by highlighting the need for discussion around textbook censorship.
“Textbooks are more than just a book of facts,” she said. “There’s a lot invested in them, in what they’re trying to say.”
The main purpose of textbooks is to organize information in such a way that will help students learn, but they also can have an impact on people’s beliefs, morals and points of view through the information they present.
Connor pointed out that diversity is the uniting factor among Americans, but it can also present challenges to authors about who is included and how they are represented in textbook materials.
“These books often become prayer books of American civic religion,” she said.
Connor gave a brief historical overview of textbook censorship, citing many examples of authors who were essentially shunned for being “pro-socialist” and books that were banned for being radical. She also mentioned court cases, most notably State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes in 1925 where a high school teacher was challenged for teaching evolution in the classroom. This was all to say that the struggle over education has been going on for a long time.
“From 1925 to 2022, we’re still having the same debate of what should be taught,” she said.
During the Q&A portion of the event, one student brought up her own memories of her high school textbooks glossing over or downplaying horrific events, such as the Trail of Tears or slavery.
Connor’s response was that many K-12 teachers she knows have started rejecting textbooks and pulling readings from a multitude of sources for this very reason– sometimes the textbooks are not providing nuance. While she doesn’t disagree with this approach, Connor argued that this can become a slippery slope.
“The textbook is at least a guideline. When it’s removed, what do you know is being taught?” she concluded. “You can say these books are horrible, but what’s the alternative?”