Friday, September 26, 2014

Maya Lindberg: The danger of censoring our history

  It’s Banned Books Week, an annual event that brings renewed attention to challenged and banned titles. For many educators and students across the country, this week represents a moment to celebrate the freedom to read and engage in conversations about censorship. For schools in Jefferson County, Colorado—the state’s second largest school district—Banned Books Week holds particular relevance.

  Hundreds of teachers and students are engaged in protests against the new school board’s proposal to form a review committee, tasked with ensuring curricula focus on topics that promote patriotism, respect for authority and free enterprise. More specifically, the committee will identify and weed out materials that “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law,” according to a committee document. The proposal identifies Advanced Placement U.S. history as one of first curricula to be reviewed.

  The parameters put forth in the proposal are widely seen as a form of censorship. Jefferson County schools have been forced to close as teachers organized and partook in “sick-outs,” using sick days and their absence to mark their objection. Students have organized and participated in walk-outs. Taking to the streets, these educators and students are engaged in acts of civil disobedience—a type of protest listed among the very action that the school board proposes to omit from curricula.

  The New York Times reports one student saying, “You can’t erase our history. It’s not patriotic.” Some see banning topics that “encourage or condone civil disorder” as akin to relegating iconic figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and César Chávez—as well as less well-known crusaders for justice—to the margins of our national memory. Others are asking how any U.S. history class cannot involve nuanced engagement with the civil rights movement, labor movements and other pivotal events in the long march for justice. The message for the school board is clear: Whitewashing U.S. history and masking important realities will simply not do and cannot be tolerated.

  Why? The answer is twofold. First, rewriting curriculum such as AP U.S. history with the “standards” in the school board’s proposal will be a grave disservice to students. It jeopardizes their ability to obtain college credit and advanced standing, let alone their college-readiness at large. It also obliterates the genuine purpose of any history curriculum: to expose students to diverse and often conflicting perspectives, situate complex viewpoints in time and place and identify silences in the historical record—the very silences created by the abuses of power and authority.

  Second, the parameters put forth will give students a false impression of our country’s history. A curriculum that blindly promotes patriotism and universal respect for authority figures will hide important truths: Our 250-year history is driven by the desire of people to effect change, often taking to the streets and using extralegal means to do so. Every significant change in our history—the abolition of slavery, the extension of the right to vote, passage of worker protection and safety laws, the end of Jim Crow—came about because people took action, rallying together against unjust laws and practices.

  Historical truth is at stake in Jefferson County. That’s why we continue to see protesters gathering outside the school board’s offices. Jefferson County has turned into a political battleground, but it’s important to remember that the issues of censorship are not isolated to this one school district. Censorship can seep into any classroom or school district unless concerted efforts are taken to challenge this process.

  About the author: Maya Lindberg is a writer/associate editor at Teaching Tolerance.

  This article was published by the Southern Poverty Law Center through its Teaching Tolerance blog

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