Education and Censorship

by Rachel Reinhard*


Erasmus of Rotterdam censored by the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Source: WikiCommons.

The teaching of history is inherently political and, consequently, plays a unique role in K-12 classrooms. As an area studied by elementary and secondary students, it is one of the most divorced from its disciplinary home in the academy. Science classes engage in lab work and experiments that replicate those conducted by scientists, though controversies over evolution, the origins of the universe, and climate change persist. English teachers explore theme, metaphor, and style—the mechanisms by which language is employed—and encourage students to study the representation of identities through prose. Elementary and secondary history textbooks, however, share static narratives. These stories of a shared past obscure historical arguments, present a series of seemingly authoritative facts, and, consequently, leave little room for debate and engagement. The recent student protests against political incursions into classroom curriculum in Jefferson County, Colorado, shine a light on the multiple motivations that rest within history instruction.

More often than not, one of the primary purposes of social studies instruction is to serve as a nation builder. In California, where I live and work, the social studies framework outlines three distinct strands—Knowledge and Cultural Understanding, Democratic Understanding and Civic Values, and Skills Attainment and Social Participation. From the vantage point of these multiple strands, the history teacher must make decisions about instruction. Within this nexus of motivations, the College Board recently decided to alter the framework for instruction of Advanced Placement (AP) US History. Local school boards protested by reasserting their expectations for instruction and students, most noticeably in Jefferson County, Colorado.

The new AP framework invites students to argue about the past by identifying “competing conceptions of national identity” as an important point of intellectual engagement. It encourages teachers to embed “conflicts over ethnic assimilation and distinctiveness” into their instruction. By contrast, Jefferson County school board member Julie Williams responded with a more traditional notion of the role of history instruction in K-12 education. She proposed a new law to require history courses to “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority, and respect for individual rights.” Students and teachers in Jefferson County responded by staging protests, exemplifying the College Board’s recommendation to highlight points in history when groups demand change through “petition, cooperation, and conflict.”

The conflict in Jefferson County that played out on news channels and through social media earlier this fall highlights the inherent contradictions that lie in K-12 social studies instruction. How should teachers share a discipline-specific process of knowledge construction with students? By and large, they do not. Often, the result is that students are surprised when they sit in their first college-level courses. As James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, wrote in a recent article about the new AP US History framework, “like the college courses the test is supposed to mirror, the A.P. course calls for a dialogue with the past—learning how to ask historical questions, interpret documents and reflect both appreciatively and critically on history.” However, whether enrolled in an AP class that is intended to replicate the intellectual challenge of a college-level course, or through explicit integration in earlier grades, students, who often find history and the memorizing of facts deathly boring, need to know that actual people make decisions about what is learned, that scholars explore questions that they find interesting and important, and that as novices in the discipline they can be involved in developing the historical narratives of our past.

When oversight committees that respond both to the academy and to special interest groups across the political spectrum construct state-mandated narratives, it is incumbent upon the classroom teacher to share how the knowledge encoded in their standards and textbooks was created. This process should not be initiated solely to indict and should not be shared only with students whose stories are so often excluded. Rather, they should invite all students into the world of knowing. Once students (and teachers) are made to think critically about how curriculum is developed, they must be introduced to the how and what of the work historians do. Questioning that focuses research and serves as a criterion for evaluating evidence drives knowledge construction among historians. Of course, this process in itself is not neutral. It is mitigated by the positionality of the person asking the question, as well as by the time and space they inhabit.

By sharing this process of discipline-specific thinking with students, teachers open up the world of knowledge-building to students, providing them with a sense that these authoritative voices are, perhaps, not so all-knowing after all. It turns out that real people, with real questions, find answers based on the sources they deem most credible. This allows students to mimic the actual work of historians and to develop their own questions, based on their own positionality, and to find sources among the evidence that they deem most credible.

The students protesting in Jefferson County, Colorado, saw the efforts by the school board as the canary in the coalmine. “What’s next?” asked Jackson Curtiss, a student protestor who was quoted in the New York Times. “Are you going to choose science? Are you going to take down English?” Perhaps they will, or perhaps the collective gaze is focused on history because how we remember and talk about our past is so important to how we define our collective selves. Regardless of the longer-term implications of the Jefferson County school board’s effort to restore a traditional narrative, students revealed that they had, in fact, internalized what the new Advanced Placement US History framework had hoped to foster—that is, demanding access to meaningful content and skill development while participating in deeply engaged civic action.

The College Board, 2014. “AP US History Curriculum Framework.” At
Grossman, James R. 2014. “The New History Wars.” New York Times, September 11,
Healy, Jack 2014. New York Times, October 3,
Williamson, John H. 1981. “Textbook Publishing: Facts and Myths.” In John Y. Cole, The Textbook in American Society,

* Rachel B. Reinhard (email: directs the UC Berkeley History-Social Science Project. A graduate of UC Berkeley’s doctoral history program, she draws upon her experience as an elementary school teacher, college professor, and professional development provider to help improve teacher practice and student learning in elementary and secondary classrooms.

Rachel B. Reinhard, “Education and Censorship.” Social Justice blog, 11/11/2014. © Social Justice 2014.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *