Archived Opinion

What lesson does censorship teach our children?

What lesson does censorship teach our children?

When I learned of the removal of the book “Dear Martin” from an English II class at Tuscola High School, my first thoughts were of my daughter’s English teachers who created opportunities for the students to read texts that made them think. They engaged in discussions about important topics and real-world issues and were asked to critically analyze different perspectives and experiences. My often-reluctant reader was motivated and inspired. High-performing schools allow for intellectual discussion and debate, and I am grateful her Tuscola teachers provided these opportunities.

The removal of “Dear Martin” concerned me. Would this decision, this censoring of teacher professional discretion, restrict important opportunities for students? 

I wonder how the decision was made to remove the book from the curriculum. Whose voices were listened to and who were the decision makers? I know that my parental perspective was not considered. Did decision makers read the entire book? How was the teacher who assigned the book involved? Were a range of perspectives considered? Was research done about the book and its use in schools?

I am writing this column having just finished the book. To be honest, it was a difficult read. The more I read, the more I saw the many real-world, difficult issues including racial profiling, violence and systemic inequities represented. I found myself marking places that I wanted to discuss with others, especially people who have had different lived experiences than me. There were places that made me pause and consider connections to current events, sparking me to learn more. Yes, there is language that I prefer not be used in the world, but it is real language, language that adolescents hear and that many of them use. This realistic language and content is characteristic of young adult literature.

Did the decision makers consider that this book focuses on racial issues and inequities that real people in our nation and local communities face? The North Carolina Standards for American History include engaging students in inquiry, evaluating American identity, critiquing multiple perspectives, explaining experiences and achievements of minority and marginalized populations, and learning about struggles against bias, racism, oppression and discrimination. The North Carolina English Standards include teaching students to effectively participate in discussions, to create rules for collegial discussion and to refer to evidence from texts and other research on issues to stimulate thoughtful, well-researched exchange of ideas.

In July 2020, the Haywood County School Board reiterated its commitment to ensure equity for all students. The Superintendent created a Plan to Foster Unity and Limit Divisive Bias Regarding Race and other Important Topics. Little related information has been available to the public since then. Is the advisory committee established as part of this plan active and was it involved in this decision? Has there been any attempt to ensure that racial issues are included in our curriculum and that collegial, critical conversations about current realities take place — with or without this particular book? 

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So, what now? My hope is that we all continue to consider this situation in a range of ways. I invite school board members, teachers, school leaders, parents and community members to join me in a book group that reads and discusses “Dear Martin.” I am more than willing to organize related efforts and help identify the best facilitator for this work. I also ask that the school leaders ensure access to the “Dear Martin” book in the Tuscola and Pisgah libraries. 

I strongly encourage the school system to honor the professionalism of teachers and their decisions. Of course, there are times when decisions need to be reconsidered, but censoring books is serious business. School leaders should have input from multiple perspectives (teachers, curricular leaders, diverse parents and community members, state standards and high-quality educational sources). The Board could conduct a thorough review of “Dear Martin,” be open to a range of outcomes, make a fully informed decision and share a detailed account with the public. If they determine that the language in this book is truly the problem, I recommend that teachers help students understand the realistic language in its context. Another response would be to specifically endorse other texts that address the experiences of marginalized people and help students learn about bias, racism, discrimination and oppression, as is required by the North Carolina American History Standards.

I am left convinced that our children, the future leaders of our communities, would be much better prepared if they could read texts like this, think critically about them and engage in civil discourse around them. I am also proud of teachers in our school system who seek to engage our students in these ways and am greatly disappointed that this important work was shut down.

Finally, I ask that we work together in efforts to prioritize work related to equity in our schools and that the school board communicates regularly about related initiatives to our community. 

I once again offer to partner and serve in any or all of these efforts.

(Patricia Bricker lives in Waynesville with her 15-year-old daughter Sofie, who attends Tuscola High School. She is a professor in the School of Teaching and Learning, Director of Teacher Education, and Associate Dean in the College of Education and Allied Professions at Western Carolina University. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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6 comments

  • Thank you! Banning books is a form of thought control, to prevent our children from being critical thinkers. In every oppressive country, books and media are censored. Free thinking is not encourage, conformity is.
    This thought control movement is not a grassroots movement, it's controlled by those with power who want to turn our country into an authoritarian government.
    Banning books has never gone well. Let's not let this movement destroy our education system.

    posted by Deni Gottlieb

    Saturday, 02/05/2022

  • We need more Patrcia Brickers speaking out on the censorship of books. Her voice is an intelligent one and is far too rare in communities where the wrong people are making snap decisions about "good" books and "bad" books.

    posted by Gurney Chambers

    Friday, 02/04/2022

  • Well stated Dr.Bricker,
    You addressed many issues that should have been discussed by the school board and the stakeholders who should have been brought into the conversation. I agree, banning books is serious business and I would guarantee, from the standpoint of someone who has been on committees judging outstanding literature for students, that the language is found in other texts in classroom and school libraries across the country. If foul language was the problem, then the parent who were offended should be riding school buses, helping the drivers as language monitors. I seriously doubt this was truly about foul language.
    Students not having opportunities to be exposed to the problem of inequities and having well guided, serious discussions about them leads to issues of not being able to see and think about the perspectives of others. The opportunity to have these discussions surely outweigh the language, which is also part of the discussion. It is a bit discouraging to see book banning in Haywood County.

    posted by Carla

    Friday, 02/04/2022

  • Dr. Bricker, thank you for this cogent, well-written, and well-reasoned piece. I hope that your remarks cause folks to pause, reflect, and read this book. I hope those involved will take you up on the offer to participate in a book study. I would be willing to help curate a collection of related texts.

    posted by Dr. Lester Laminack, Professor Emeritus, WCU

    Thursday, 02/03/2022

  • I applaud your stance, Dr. Bricker. You gave this issue a lot of thought and reflection. AND your willingness to partner and put forth effort toward a more equitable solution is admirable.
    As a former teacher in Haywood County schools, I thank you.

    posted by Emily Jackson

    Thursday, 02/03/2022

  • It is a tough book to read but not beyond the ability of 9th grade students. And it is contemporary making it approachable as well. I understand the thinking is to replace it with To Kill a Mockingbird which while a fine book replaces the focus from a black protagonist to a white protagonist and contemporary time period to 1930’s. Both are about civil rights and false accusation I agree except….:

    posted by ThereseBigelow

    Thursday, 02/03/2022

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