Magazine Feature

Books Under Fire

Every year, teachers find themselves at the center of banned-book debates, wondering how to teach meaningful literature in chilled atmospheres.
Bookmarked 7 times
Illustration by Anita Kunz

Eleanor Cumberland recalls vividly the school desegregation wars that erupted in the farming community of Hillsboro, Ohio, a half-century ago.

In 1954, the year she entered 7th grade, her mother, Imogene Curtis, helped mobilize a campaign of daily marches by black students to whites-only schools. Turned away at the schoolhouse door, Curtis and other black parents home-schooled their children and, with help from the NAACP, brought the first civil rights lawsuit in the North under the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Eleanor Cumberland's house was used as a makeshift school during the protracted legal battle.

So it was with full awareness of the history of the civil rights struggle that the 63-year-old retired nurse's aide in 2004 asked Hillsboro High Principal Larry Stall to remove Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird from the 9th-grade English curriculum.

Teaching Tolerance illustration of sitting on the floor facing an almost empty shelves of books

The critically acclaimed novel, set in the fictional Alabama community of Maycomb during the Great Depression, tells the story of a town torn by the trial of a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman; of Atticus Finch, the white lawyer who defends him; and of his children, Jem and Scout, through whose voices the events unfold.

To Kill a Mockingbird consistently ranks near the top of the American Library Association's list of 100 most frequently banned books. Most complaints involve the use of language now considered racially offensive, including the N-word.

"I feel the book serves no purpose but to keep racism and separatism alive in a day when we're supposed to be teaching love and equality," Cumberland said in a letter to the principal. "In all reality, we know these feelings of hatred and prejudice are still harbored by some people, but should those responsible for our children's education play a part in keeping bigotry, superiority and hatred alive?"

"To Kill a Mockingbird is a work of art that clearly confronts racism," Superintendent Byron Wisecup responded. "The highest result of education is teaching tolerance. This book is unflinching in its condemnation of racial prejudice."

At the recommendation of a review committee, he kept the book in the curriculum.

Mockingbird is in good company. Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and J. K. Rowling's wildly popular Harry Potter series routinely make the ALA's list of most-challenged books.


Rooted in history

Notwithstanding the First Amendment, book banning is a practice rooted in American history. In 1873, Congress passed the Comstock Law in an effort to legislate public morality. Though rarely enforced, the act remains on the books.

Teaching Tolerance illustration of students trying to unlock a book

A survey by the National School Boards Association found that one-third of challenges to school reading materials in the 1990s resulted in the withdrawal or restriction of those materials.

The reasons people try to censor or restrict access haven't changed all that much over time. Books are most often attacked for being "age-inappropriate" in their use of sexually explicit or racially charged language or for expressing unorthodox political, religious or cultural views. Some challenges are brought by individual parents, others by religious right groups that target books they regard as anti-Christian.

Whatever the motive, efforts to restrict access to books deemed objectionable can polarize communities, leaving deep wounds. Classroom teachers often find themselves on the front line in these battles, yet without any real power to defend their choices or to affect the outcome — an uncomfortable place to be.

Teachers no longer get fired for teaching Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, but most teacher contracts still don't adequately protect academic freedom, said Ann Nice, president of the Portland, Ore., Association of Teachers. Her union's contract allows members to introduce controversial materials provided they "are appropriate and relevant to course content and grade level and that balanced viewpoints on a controversial issue are presented."


Some people say, 'Have them read it in college.' I don't think postponing important discussions until college is the right thing to do.

That language did not prevent a months-long public debate in Portland in the fall of 2002, after a parent and two African American students challenged the way Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was being taught in a 9th-grade class at predominantly white Lincoln High School. Mark Twain's classic tale of a runaway slave uses the N-word more than 200 times.

The book was not removed, but student activists gathered 260 signatures on a petition to the school board asking that teachers who use it undergo sensitivity training. Even state legislators joined the debate.

Tracey Wyatt, an 18-year classroom veteran, was one of four Lincoln High English teachers who publicly supported the embattled teacher. "It could have happened to any one of us," she said.

None of the teachers stopped using Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a result of the controversy, she said; in fact, her own students expressed a strong desire to read it. Lincoln teachers prepared their students by discussing Twain's use of language and describing race relations in the post-Civil War era — just as they did before the challenge flared into the headlines, Wyatt said.

High school students are ready to handle sexual, racial and other sensitive content, she said. "I don't want to bombard them. But I don't feel I need to protect them as long as I have built this safe place for them to discuss these issues. That's the key."

Wyatt added, "Some people say, 'Have them read it in college.' I don't think postponing important discussions until college is the right thing to do."

In Federal Way, Wash., 9th-grade English teacher Vince Halloran found himself in the spotlight in the spring of 2004 after 32 parents upset about sexual content in the book Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress petitioned the superintendent to remove it from the reading list. The novel by Dai Sijie, which tells the story of two youths who find a suitcase full of banned books during China's Cultural Revolution, came highly recommended by the school district's head of curriculum and instruction. After the complaint was filed, a committee that reevaluated the book gave it unanimous support.

Nonetheless, the superintendent not only agreed to remove the book but directed that, in the future, the district would provide reading lists to parents in advance and submit them to the school board for approval.

Halloran said the decision to appease the complaining parents deeply disappointed him. It also had a chilling effect, he said, "not just because teachers and students lost a precious and powerful resource, but because it seemed very clear that what mattered during this episode was who could raise the biggest stink. Reason and logic seemed to be thrown out the window."


Acting unilaterally

Most school districts have established processes for handling complaints about course materials. If a parent objects, a teacher may assign an alternative reading. The next step typically is a formal review by a committee of principals and curriculum specialists. Finally, a parent may appeal to an elected school board and make the case for the book's removal at a public hearing where all sides get to have their say.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a work of art that clearly confronts racism. The highest result of education is teaching tolerance. This book is unflinching in its condemnation of racial prejudice.

Complaints most often escalate into controversy when an individual teacher, principal, superintendent or school board member, responding to political pressure, bypasses that process and acts unilaterally.

That's what happened in the Savannah-Chatham County, Ga., Public Schools in 1999 after a stepfather offended by what he regarded as profanity, explicit sex and extreme violence in three books on his stepdaughter's advanced-placement reading list bypassed the teacher, principal and superintendent and went straight to the school board. At a televised meeting, he read selected passages aloud, embarrassing board members. Soon after, the principal was ordered to pull the books. Eventually, the decision was rescinded.


'The schoolhouse gate'

In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court sent a mixed message on the issue in a New York case challenging a decision by the Island Trees Union Free School District Board of Education to order nine books removed from junior high and high school libraries.

The high court agreed that school boards have considerable discretion to determine school curricula and to decide what books are available in school libraries based on "community values." However, a majority found that it was a violation of the First Amendment for a school board to deny students access to ideas by ordering books removed from library shelves simply because board members disagreed with those ideas.

Citing a previous court ruling, Justice William Brennan wrote that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." However, the court did not address challenges to books assigned by classroom teachers.

And students are not oblivious to the message sent when a book is removed from the classroom, English teacher Halloran said.

"Students already intuit that what they are getting is divorced from and bears scant resemblance to the 'real world,'" he said. "Why not stand firm as a public institution that expresses and explores the complex range of human experience? Why be diplomatic and apologetic about the fact that we do not shy away from difficult, challenging and complex topics?"

The American Library Association's list of the 100 most challenged books is drawn from more than 6,000 challenges reported from 1990-2000 by the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom. Research suggests for each challenge reported, there are as many as four or five unreported. Take a look at the list.


Whack! That's the sound of me smiting my head after 10 years and hundreds of calls from teachers in danger of being fired for doing their jobs.


The problem isn't that parents and others challenge the use of particular books. That's certainly their right. What's disturbing is that challenges all to often go past reasoned discussion — or even hotly argued disagreement — and headlong into agitation, manipulation and rabble-rousing.


The most common pot-stirring action is shameless sensationalism.


Profane words or sexual passages are listed out of context and read aloud at a school board meeting. Fliers with the offensive words listed are placed on windshields in parking lots. Calls are made to conservative talk radio shows, where hosts are glad to condemn the teaching of targeted literary works and rail at the rampant immorality of public education.


Worse, teachers are often attacked personally. They are called pornographers, racists, traitors, promoters of violence and Satanists because parts of the works they have chosen carefully for their programs are deemed offensive by protesters. Fundamentalist ministers sometimes join the charge and denounce books, teachers and schools from the pulpit. Principled disagreement and tolerance are nowhere in sight, replaced by a cacophonous culture war with little concern for the complexity of the issue, let alone the pain inflicted on others.


Who would want to stay in teaching amid such dirty fighting and hurtful accusations? Fortunately, most of the teachers I have worked with are determined not to be bullied out of the profession. Inspirationally, they keep their eye on the prize — their students' need for access to a wide variety of materials that can be read with enjoyment and critical intelligence.


While teachers have overwhelmingly reported that the would-be censors were unsuccessful, and few leave the profession, their lives are changed when the conflict gets ugly — and the after-effects of the experience are literally incalculable. It is difficult to get reliable data on self-censorship, but the anecdotes suggest that even when book-banning fails, many teachers feel a deep chill and quietly decide to limit their choices of materials.


It would be naïve to think that nasty charges will not be made in a divided society where the daily media present carping, snapping and one-upping others as fair and balanced debate. What's distressing is that this hard-edged propaganda has entered into the everyday life of teachers who, in the course of their dedication to children, find themselves vilified as despoilers of youth.


Democracy makes room for such mean-spirited extremism, of course. But let us not shrink from saying that it is cruel, bigoted and unethical. And we can hope that with continued — what else? — education, civility will prevail over the destructive excesses of censors.