Mind Control: Censorship in Education

 by Rick Ayers*

Banned books are back in the news.

This is not simply because the American Library Association has just sponsored the annual Banned Books Week, but also because activist conservatives are once again whipping up cultural wars via censorship. It was not so long ago that the Tucson School Board banned Ethnic Studies classes and seized such books as Elizabeth Martinez’s 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. More recently, the Jefferson County Board of Education in Colorado took aim at the Advanced Placement American History curriculum, deeming the problem-posing sequence to undermine patriotism and respect for authority. The board says that too much inclusion of women and minorities, as well as historical controversies, tends to “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law”; and that they want instructional materials to “present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”

 One of two censored sections of the 2012 environmental book Green Illusions by Ozzie Zehner. State laws forced the University of Nebraska Press to black-out sections of the book to be sold in the United States. "Veggie libel laws" enacted in 13 states make it illegal for journalists and authors to criticize the food industry. Source: Wikimedia.

One of two censored sections of the 2012 environmental book Green Illusions by Ozzie Zehner. State laws forced the University of Nebraska Press to black-out sections of the book to be sold in the United States. “Veggie libel laws” enacted in 13 states make it illegal for journalists and authors to criticize the food industry. Source: WikiCommons.

Those who favor freedom of thought make fun of the stupidity of book banning and remain comfortable in the assumption that we are on the side of open-minded tolerance. But we would do well to look a little deeper at the roots of such an impulse and perhaps we would find ourselves and our practices implicated. There are some deep-rooted cultural assumptions behind book banning and curriculum censorship in the United States.

The first is that children and students are empty vessels, a blank slate to be inscribed. It assures the innocence of children, their ignorance waiting to be filled, their lack of curiosity about big issues in life such as sex, death, oppression, and love. Many of us find it more comfortable to perpetrate this myth than to challenge it. Maurice Sendak, the radical author and illustrator of children’s books, argued that “grown-ups desperately need to feel safe, and then they project onto the kids. But what none of us seem to realize is how smart kids are. They don’t like what we write for them, what we dish up for them, because it’s vapid, so they’ll go for the hard words, they’ll go for the hard concepts, they’ll go for the stuff where they can learn something. Not didactic things, but passionate things.” Children have understandings of the wide world beyond what we imagine and explanations—often incomplete or made up because of the many secrets we keep from them—for pretty much everything.

A second, and related, cultural practice of our education system is the idea that we can control what children hear, see, learn, think, and know. Because too often we carry around a dull input model of teaching, we imagine that the only thing young people know is what we have told them. But from when they were infants, they have been vacuuming up knowledge, opinions, data, and perspectives. Children live in the complex and contradictory culture they were born into and, like all human beings, contribute to and make culture in the course of their lives. Too often our schools rely on what Freire called the “banking concept” of education—the model of the teacher “depositing” knowledge in little minds and then making a withdrawal when giving a test. But the production of knowledge involves negotiation of meaning and experimentation with new ideas. At its best, teaching is an art. But those who view it as simple brickwork—as foundations of knowledge that slowly accrete an edifice of certain truths—misunderstand children’s brains and social lives.

Thirdly, the cultural practice that most lends itself to book banning and censorship is the authoritarian impulse in the north-American political tradition. Schooling has always existed in this liminal space between liberatory and top-down thinking. The desire to control and repress human freedom is behind so many right-wing movements. This includes the desire to control women’s bodies (by opposing birth control and medical choice), to attack Black and Brown peoples bodies (leading to unacceptable levels of police shootings and a huge prison population), to exclude immigrants, to harshly punish children, to denounce gender non-conformists. Although these impulses, what George Lakoff has called the “strict father” syndrome in American politics, mostly belong to the far right, many authoritarian symptoms are present across the political spectrum.

In order to have schools that are sites of inquiry and exploration, to have libraries and reading lists that are vibrant and inclusive, we have to challenge some of the core values and assumptions in our educational system. If we are really against censorship, in its most overt and ridiculous manifestations such as lists of banned books or in its more insidious and subtle forms of top-down education, we have to create schools that are embedded in and respond to the needs of the communities they serve and that pursue a curriculum of questioning and democratic messiness. Children need to be told that their lives are meaningful and that we are committed to making a world with a place for them. They need to know that they have every right to interrogate the world. That’s how we will finally end the mania for censorship and control.

Rick Ayers (rjayers@usfca.edu) is assistant professor of education at the University of San Francisco in the Urban Education and Social Justice cohort. He taught in the Communication Arts and Sciences small school at Berkeley High School, where he pioneered innovative and effective strategies for academic and social success for a diverse range of students. He is the co-author, with his brother William Ayers, of Teaching the Taboo: Courage and Imagination in the Classroom and author of A Death in the Family: Teaching through Tears.

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Rick Ayers, “Mind Control: Censorship in Education.” Social Justice blog, 10/04/2014. © Social Justice 2014

2 thoughts on “Mind Control: Censorship in Education

  1. I am not a parent so I don’t know how the schools are operating in my little community in Western Lane County Oregon, but I can proudly say that my local library in Florence celebrated “Banned Books Week” by showing the film “Fahrenheit 451” and by putting our materials for people to learn about the issue and had a bunch of small “I read banned books” pin sponsored by the ACLU of Oregon. I’m very happy to see some political vibrancy in my new and small community.

  2. I am a parent, teacher educator, organizer, and Raza. Rick Ayer’s analysis is timely. It denounces the world that is, technocratic, arched towards death, and announces a world that is to become (through the worlds of children). My daughter is attending kindergarten, and it saddens me to see how the ideological roots of censorship (of knowledge and world views) in the era of the Common Core intersect with schooling, such that we are de-humanizing who children are, narrowing what they can become, taking play, emotions, and other forms of being for children out of the curriculum. This is another form of censorship, the one that is hidden yet blatant, evaded yet disguised as “critical thinking” and “sense-making.”

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