This week is Banned Books Week. Supported by several groups, including the American Library Association and the National Book Foundation, the week is intended to alert the public to threats to what Americans read, especially in public schools. Long a rather quiet affair, over the last few years “banning” has become a major issue, with one group often portrayed as the culprit: conservatives.
But it is not conservatives, or “banners” of any political stripe, that are the problem. It is public schooling itself.
You are probably familiar with the typical battle: parents at school board meetings calling for the removal of books from libraries, recommended reading lists, or class assignments. Members of Moms for Liberty, founded by three mothers and former school board members, might be the best known activists fighting to restrict books such as Gender Queer: A Memoir, about author Maia Kobabe’s journey of sexual discovery.
The many battles that have been fought over Gender Queer, which free expression watchdog PEN America reports was the fifth most challenged book in the last school year, are classic culture war: a clash of irreconcilable values.
Supporters of stocking the book argue that kids of all genders need to see people like themselves in schools, and other students need to understand that people of all genders are full parts of society. Supporters are driven by values – tolerance and inclusivity.
Opponents argue that the book, which includes illustrated depictions of sexual activity, is inappropriate for children too young to thoughtfully grapple with it, and pornographic. They too are driven by values – the desire to protect children’s innocence, and a belief that some sexual activity is inherently immoral.
But why must groups such as Moms for Liberty attack such books in public schools?
Because conservative families, just like liberal, must pay for public schools – government schools – which are inherently politically controlled. To get what they think is right – schools where children cannot peruse, or be taught from, books with immoral content – they must keep liberals from getting what they think right: inclusive collections.
Liberals have also sought to sideline books, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird which include the “N-word” and some say promote white saviorism. In 2020, the Burbank school district in heavily blue California told English teachers that they could not teach those books and several others. In 2022, the Mukilteo district in solidly Democratic Snohomish County, Washington, ended required reading of Mockingbird.
Conflict over literature in public schools is not one-sided. It also is not new.
Founding-generation luminaries Benjamin Rush and Noah Webster, in promoting the idea of public schooling, disagreed whether reading the Bible in schools should be encouraged because religion was essential, or discouraged because using scripture as a pedagogical tool cheapened it. A few decades later, as public schooling started to grow, Roman Catholics and Protestants got into heated, sometimes even bloody, conflicts over whose version of the Bible would be allowed..
And books are just one of numerous public schooling culture war battlegrounds.
Teaching the origins of life is arguably the quintessential conflict, immortalized in the play Inherit the Wind about the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. These fights—either an intelligent being created life or not—pit religious conservatives against many liberals., and while they have subsided somewhat, in the mid-2000s the town of Dover, Pennsylvania was wrenched apart by a dispute over whether students should be told that evolution is a “theory,” not a “fact.” In February of this year, a bill was introduced in West Virginia to let teachers discuss Intelligent Design.
Today we see constant culture war in public schools. The Cato Institute’s Public Schooling Battle Map contains more than 3,700 fights, including recent throwdowns in Florida over Advanced Placement African American Studies and the state’s African American history standards, the latter of which includes an item saying that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” They are fights not just over facts, but whether the country is inherently good or bad.
Of course, there’s sex education. New Jersey, for instance, created new standards in 2020, including on gender identity, and numerous districts have been embroiled in conflicts over adopting them. Then there are battles over prayer, pitting religious devotion against secularism, which we have seen in districts from North Carolina to California.
Book “banning” in public schools does not spring from some conservative cabal. As battles fought all over the county attest, such actions are inevitable when people with opposing values – any values – must all pay for government schools.
Neal McCluskey directs the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and is the author of The Fractured Schoolhouse: Reexamining Education for a Free, Equal, and Harmonious Society