Intellectual Freedom: Fighting Censorship in Our Schools

Jean E. Brown, Editor
Urbana: NCTE, 1994
252 pp.

Kathy Mosdal O'Brien
Communication Arts

In her capacity as chair of NCTE's Commission on Intellectual Freedom, Jean E. Brown led a team of scholars that designed and produced a new collection of essays entitled Preserving Intellectual Freedom: Fighting Censorship in Our Schools. In this collection, intellectual freedom is subjected to a comprehensive and sometimes spirited exam. Brown, who is also professor of teacher education at Saginaw Valley State University, describes the goal of this collection: "to reflect issues, approaches, and sources of support for educators who encounter attempts to control and abridge the open flow of ideas." At least partly in response to its own mission "to examine and make recommendations concerning the effect of censorship efforts on English curriculum" and "to explore the adequacy of preparation given [preservice and inservice] teachers to deal with censorship issues and situations," the commission drew most of its able contributors from its own ranks (xiii, 247).

While this collection comes 15 years after NCTE's Dealing with Censorship, edited by James E. Davis (who also wrote the afterword for this volume), Brown notes that the issues of concern in 1979 are every bit as relevant now as then. In her introduction, Brown explains that the five sections of this collection deal with 1) general areas of concern for intellectual freedom, 2) problems of censorship in the teaching of literature, 3) courses of action that can be taken as teachers confront censorship, 4) censorship experiences of individual teachers, and 5) the legal implications of issues concerning intellectual freedom (xiv-xv). This heart-and-hands approach to the topic wisely implies that activists should have a theory base and that theorists should actually practice what they preach.

For example, Moshman's pivotal essay, "Academic Freedom: Student Rights and Faculty Responsibilities," defends a reconfiguration of academic freedom as the students' rights to learn. In a much larger sense, the First Amendment rights of our students supersede even our own, according to Moshman, and academic freedom enables us to ensure their rights. In his introduction, with this shift in focus, Moshman convincingly debunks the claim that academic freedom is constitutionally protected as "the right of faculty to teach as they see fit"(27) and further explains how much more defensible this student-centered stance becomes when defending classroom decisions against attacks from censors. Thus, we are responsible for providing for our students a wide range of materials and ideas for their scholarly exploration. We must facilitate ways for them to analyze, evaluate and eventually internalize those materials for themselves. Within the intellectual safety of the classroom, students may then consider all the facets of these various ideas, practicing and eventually mastering the critical thinking skills necessary for making informed decisions.

As I read this landmark essay, and came to understand Moshman's revision of the concept of academic freedom, the others in the collection seemed to array themselves around it. For instance, in "What Do I Do Now? Where to Turn When You Face a Censor," Small and Weiss (151-63) give the challenged teacher a sampler of letters from censors and effective responses which they can make, as they protect the right of their students to learn. The essay also includes the names and addresses of a wide range of particular resources to which teachers may turn for assistance with specific types of censorship attacks.

Challenging some long-held theories about teaching writing, Wilson's essay, "Censorship and the Teaching of Composition"(91-99), effectively dismisses the idea that grammar drills serve as writing instruction, and does so by identifying the implicit censorship which that atomistic approach entails. Wilson does acknowledge that this kind of censorship, which she defines as the "counterproductive removal of all intellectual content from the teaching of composition" is undoubtedly "difficult to recognize both because it is altruistically motivated and because it appears on the surface to be a logical response to the 'academic shortcomings' of today's student population"(91). She contends, however, that whether we identify it or not, it subverts the individual student's right to learn through writing because it "smothers youthful curiosity and enthusiasm in a mountain of 'preliminaries,' while abridging or totally usurping the amount of time available for genuine intellectual involvement" which actual writing provides (94). Even in this essay's subtitles, such as "Preparing to Write versus Writing" and "Studying Grammar versus Using Grammar," we see that effective writing instruction integrates the study of grammar, but does not deify it. Students--and we--learn to write by actually writing about challenging, scholarly material we've considered, and Wilson solidly defends that approach.

Van Camp's essay, "Intellectual Freedom and the Student: Using Literature to Teach Differentiation of Propaganda and Persuasion,"(81-90) is also excellent and includes discussion questions and examples that assist students who are learning to differentiate between these two very different kinds of writing. Two other essays, O'Donnell's "Freedom and Restrictions in Language Use"(100-110) and Brinkley's "Intellectual Freedom and the Theological Dimensions of Whole Language"(111-122) also deal respectfully with theological concerns which the fundamentalist critic (or those working with them) may have about the selection and use of what may be deemed controversial classroom materials.

Some of the essays in this collection deal with topics we might find it easy to dismiss as being inapplicable to higher education, or to the education of discerning minds, such as Hydrick's "Slugging It Out: Censorship Issues in the Third Grade," or Cerra's "Self-Censorship and the Elementary School Teacher," but we do so at our own peril. We actually need to work in concert with all our colleagues in this education business, so we all need to know what our colleagues are experiencing, no matter which group of student they serve. Some worry that while our long history of community-mandated textbook censorship at the elementary and secondary level may have resolved some of the local problems there, it has been at much too large a cost to those students who proceed to college and university classrooms. According to Delfattore (What Johnny Shouldn't Read: Textbook Censorship in America, 1992), "When student have spent twelve years reading books based more on market forces than on scholarly excellence, they may not come to college prepared to do college level-work." In the same analysis, she notes the AAUP's concern that "[S]tudents whose pre-college education was based primarily on 'official' textbooks are not likely to understand how to deal with shades of meaning or with controversial topics"(9). Here lies, then, higher education's real problem--the censorship of secondary and elementary textbooks and teaching materials. Our students are ill-prepared to deal with controversy (a.k.a. life), not so much because of poor teaching or pedagogy, but because of being overprotected by constraints laid down by communities afraid that their schools will taint their children by discussing thorny topics. Stepping across our college and university thresholds each fall, filled with the helium of false and ungrounded self-confidence, are students who are easily manipulated into inappropriate situations, groups, or belief systems that they could have withstood with a little experience in dealing with controversial topics.

Brown and her colleagues assume that instructors who do succeed in creating an "open flow of ideas" in their classrooms will almost surely experience unwarranted censorship attempts from supervisors, special interest groups, or both. In light of that, these essays confront any and all individuals or groups who would challenge the classroom decisions of individual teachers. In most cases, unlike those mentioned in these essays, censorship conflicts can be resolved with minimum disruption to the classroom environment, but the thornier episodes of censorship usually involve one or both of the two cohesive dissenting groups who most effectively precipitate large-scale confrontations: the Fundamentalist Christian Right and what Nat Hentoff (Free Speech for Me--But Not for Thee, 1992) calls "the righteous left"(152). For remarkably similar reasons, both groups insist on limiting which materials can be used in the classroom environment. While both groups share such laudable goals as protecting students from inappropriate language and creating learning environments that foster positive attitudes, their attempt to do so with censorship creates incurably bland texts, and subsequently bland curricula. Without the occasional truly vile character in the cast even the heroes begin to look a bit tawdry absent the vital contrast between good and evil. At its worst, censorship makes it pretty hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

Simplistically put, the fundamentalist right censor would have us believe that all evil is Satanic and must be expunged from all texts and put behind us, while the righteous left censor would have us believe that evil is simply linguistic in nature and that we can disempower it by saying things in a different way, thereby tolerating what we cannot eliminate.

Some feel that these two are the only groups which can truly be labeled censors (What Johnny Shouldn't Read: Textbook Censorship in America, 1992), since each demands that its agendas supplant those of all other groups and become the norm. It should come as no surprise that parents from both the fundamental right and the righteous left figure prominently in both the censorship confrontations and the burgeoning home-school movement. We could say that the fundamentally right censors want to be alone in the room, doing their own thing, while the righteous left censors want everybody in the same room, doing the same thing . . . nicely.

Although the collection does what it claims to do, the arrogant, even condescending tone of some of the essays often made me feel more like a preservice instructor than a 20+ year veteran educator. There may not be a way to avoid this when the intended audience for this collection is so inclusive, but it made me hurry through essays like "Who's Protecting Whom and From What?" (178-91), an account of selecting controversial poems to be printed in a student publication. As I read of Kapron and Paye embroiling themselves in what would be several years of conflict and eventual litigation, I found myself talking to the tv, as it were, muttering "No, don't do THAT!" or "No, not THAT way!" or "What were you THINKING?!" Their kind of idealism is sometimes hard to tell from careless foolishness when teachers charge ahead under the banner of intellectual freedom. We probably need to be protected somehow from our own private agendas, when they drive us into classroom decisions that create more logistical problems that they do learning experiences. Our ultimate responsibility is to design and provide classroom activities that create and nurture critical thinkers, not dutiful drones with picket line mentality who thrill at the thought of confronting authority figures.

As concerned faculty, this may be the basis of our most important task undertaken in pursuit of our professional responsibilities. If we are to facilitate the intellectual development of scholars whose critical thinking skills are problem-solving techniques will enable them to succeed and excel, then preserving academic freedom for students and professors alike is where we must start.


Delfattore, Joan. What Johnny Shouldn't Read: Textbook Censorship in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Hentoff, Nat. Free Speech for Me--But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992.

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