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Defining Censorship Down

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eye on the news

Defining Censorship Down

Progressive complaints over “book bans” in schools misconceive the relationship between democracy and public education. February 8, 2022
Education
The Social Order

Last October, Brevard Public Schools, which educates roughly 74,000 students in eastern Florida, removed Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe from its libraries out of concern that the graphic novel featured “adult images that have no place in education.” BPS superintendent Mark Mullin alleged the book “violates [school] guidelines” and encouraged parents to review BPS’s library catalogue, available online. A Florida NBC affiliate devoted roughly 30 seconds to covering the decision; a few local outlets spent around 200 words noting that the book will no longer be available in public schools.

In short, it was a local news story—but one that has the national media increasingly concerned. Mullin was likely following the lead of public schools in Fairfax, Virginia, which had pulled the book from its shelves a month before in response to parent outrage. Since then, roughly a dozen large public school districts have opted not to carry it. That prompted NBC News to give Kobabe’s book the dubious moniker of “one of [the] most-banned” in America. And recently, the New York Times ran a story—headlined “Book Ban Efforts Spread Across the U.S.”—alleging that a reactionary war on “more diverse books” such as Gender Queer could eventually endanger the availability of “towering canonical works.”

Whose canon does Gender Queer belong to? As the saying goes, never judge a book by its cover. In Gender Queer’s case, that means the reader must overlook an illustration of a shirtless prepubescent girl staring at a reflection of herself transitioned into a boy. The book itself chronicles the autobiographical journey of Kobabe as she (or “e,” due to Kobabe’s preference for something called “Spivak pronouns”) struggles with her gender while growing up in northern California.

Much of Gender Queer is rather banal, notwithstanding progressive claims of its importance. It reads more like a confused teenage girl’s diary than the Great American Novel. Still, the reasons that school boards have jettisoned it are readily apparent. Kobabe describes her educator parents as uninterested in “enforcing gender roles.” She illustrates exceedingly graphic scenes not only of menstruation but of asking her sibling to ingest her vaginal fluid. Another scene depicts adolescent masturbation techniques.

Finding any pedagogical value in such a text would require a graduate degree. And it’s hard not to question the motives of educators who stocked public school libraries with the book and now insist on its presence in the classroom. But debating with educators and activists whether this or that particular text belongs in the classroom concedes the mistaken notion that they, not the public at large, should decide what children ought to learn.

The tension between parents exercising control over their children’s education on one hand and the whims of zealous bureaucrats on the other is not new. Founders of the country’s public school system, such as Horace Mann, saw educators as a secular priesthood tasked with molding the social values of the young. Without a state-led education system, Mann argued in his 1839 “The Necessity of Education in a Republican Government” address, even “the ablest pastor” will have little luck in shaping the behavior and manners of his congregation. Mann saw adults as having a “fixed character,” unlike children, and compared a church’s efforts in correcting that character to “one solitary arborist working, single-handed and alone, in a wide forest, where there are hundreds of stooping and contorted trees.”

John Dewey elaborated on these themes, seeking to fuse the values of democratic governance and education. Their purpose, Dewey wrote in his seminal Democracy and Education, is to demand a “social return” from the public and to ensure that the “opportunity for development of distinctive capacities be afforded all.” According to Dewey, “The notion that the ‘essentials’ of elementary education are the three R’s mechanically treated, is based upon ignorance of the essentials needed for realization of democratic ideals.”

On this view, public schools are not mere creations of a democratic society subject to popular control. They make democracy attainable and shape the values of future citizens, rendering moral instruction from teachers a necessity. As progressives expand the meaning of “democracy” to include catering to various identity groups, attempts by parents to modify public school curricula have thus come under attack as illegitimate, illiberal, or a threat to the country itself.

In reality, no liberal principles are at stake here. A superintendent removing explicit texts from a mandatory curriculum or school library is hardly censorship. A local school board responding to an outcry from parents is hardly an attack on democratic values. Nobody claims that the Marquis de Sade is being censored because his work is not used in health class or available for checkout. Schools have a finite amount of time and resources each school year to instruct students, and whether children should be exposed to certain texts is ultimately a question of the allocation of taxpayer dollars.

In any case, progressives who think schools must make pornographic texts widely available for the purposes of social justice should consider our recent history. The country managed to expand the franchise, pass the Civil Rights Act, and legalize abortion and gay marriage without letting kids walk into a public school and read a graphic novel featuring the sexual encounters of transgender-identifying minors. For the Left, the kids have been alright for some time now.

Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

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