A Worried Indiana Professor Says More and More U.S. Schools Are Censoring and Banning Books

updated 09/01/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/01/1980 01:00AM

As many of the nation's schools reopen this week, a controversy rages among educators and parents about what books students should—and should not—be reading. Closely monitoring the battle is Edward B. Jenkinson, professor of English education at Indiana University and author of Censors in the Classroom: The Mind Benders (Southern Illinois University Press, $12.50). "I remember seeing pictures of Nazis burning books," says Jenkinson, 49. "Not long after, the Nazis burned humans." Hyperbole aside, Jenkinson says he is "shocked" by what he has found in nearly 10 years of investigating the efforts of certain groups to screen classroom materials. Jenkinson's respect for books dates back to his own childhood, when he sometimes devoured eight on a summer day. Now he averages two books a week, often those that have been banned in a community. The youngest of six children, Jenkinson graduated from Ball State Teachers College in his native Muncie, Ind., and received an M.A. from Indiana University. He is a former vice-president of the National Council of Teachers of English and recently served as chairman of its Committee against Censorship. Jenkinson is married and the father of three children, aged 20 years to 20 months. He discussed what Johnny can't read and why with Giovanna Breu of PEOPLE.

How widespread is censorship?

It's coast to coast, big city and little town, the East as well as the Midwest and the South. I become very impatient with people who say that I am concerned about censorship because I live in a conservative backwater. There are probably as many cases in Connecticut and California as there are in Indiana.

Has censorship in schools increased?

In 1976 some 200 cases were reported to the American Library Association. Today there are about 300 reported a year. I maintain that for every reported incident of censorship, perhaps 50 more go unreported.

What are some of the books that have been critized?

A Farewell to Arms is attacked because of sex and language. So are Red Badge of Courage and Drums along the Mohawk. If protest groups can't get a book on anything else, they go after it on violence. The one that really stuns me is Jack London's The Call of the Wild. The objection is to its language.

What are other reasons that books are banned?

Travels of Babar is a target because it depicts Africans as cannibals. Back to School with Betsy, for first-graders, comes under fire as a sexist stereotype because she plays in a dress and Mary Jane shoes. The Rabbit's Wedding, written for children age 2 to 5, in which a black and a white rabbit get married, has been called a sneaky appeal for interracial marriage. Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was made an optional book on the reading list at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., after a group of black parents complained that it contained racially derogatory remarks.

What are some other attacks on books?

A school board member in Indiana called for the dismissal of the school librarian after discovering a book titled Making It with Mademoiselle. It contained dress patterns. Belly Button Defense was also objected to because of its title. It's about basketball.

What has been attacked besides books?

Magazines like TIME, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report, because they show the harsh realities of life. Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice has been thrown out of a few schools by Jewish groups.

What is the reason for this rash of school censorship?

Literature changed in the late '60s and early 70s. Today's novels for teenagers deal with real subjects in language that students use. Many people do not want students to use that language and do not want them reading about premarital sex, drugs, violence in the ghetto and the things that are happening to adolescents.

How is censorship implemented?

By removing or banning books, using felt tip pens to blot out words or sentences, or checking books out of the library on a permanent basis. One school board member took books home, destroyed them and then sent the library a check to cover the cost.

How many organizations are involved in school censorship?

I used the figure 300 in my book, but found out a few months ago that in Minnesota alone in 1978 there were 73 textbook protest groups. I don't want to single out Minnesota. Sometimes groups are organized to get rid of just one book, like Judy Blume's Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. It's a book about a flat-chested girl who talks to God about becoming a woman. She's afraid she'll be the last of her friends to have "it" (her period). Adolescent books like this are quite well done. Kids get a sense of relief to learn that this is not something that is happening only to them. Librarians will tell you they can't keep that particular book on the shelves. But there are many parents, teachers and administrators who don't think kids should be reading such books.

What kinds of textbooks cause controversy?

Grammar, civics, history and science textbooks—even dictionaries—have been attacked. Science books because of evolution. History books because of one-worldism and even the mere mention of the United Nations.

Why are some dictionaries banned?

In 1976 the commissioner of education for Texas placed five dictionaries on the no-purchase list, including the Doubleday Dictionary, the Random House College Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary. Parents objected not only to so-called dirty words in the dictionary—that is, the four-letter words—but even to words like "bed" and, because you cannot legally bet on horses in Texas, "across the board."

What have been the worst instances of censorship in recent history?

In the 1974 textbook war in Kanawha County, W. Va., there was a lot of violence. Two school buses were struck by sniper fire. Schools were firebombed. Eventually the censors won, and the board of education adopted guidelines that made it difficult to approve any but the most bland textbooks.

Were there other major confrontations?

In Warsaw, Ind., in 1977, people turned a back-to-basics movement into a crusade. They got rid of courses like Shakespeare, creative writing and Gothic literature.

Is there one particular group spearheading such protests?

Mel Gabler and his wife, Norma, are two of the most influential people in American education today. They are the founders of Educational Research Analysts in Texas, and they have turned their home into the nation's largest textbook clearing house. In 1978 they reviewed 28 textbook series up for adoption by the State of Texas, and then proclaimed that they had single-handedly shot down 18 series they found objectionable.

How does Texas' textbook policy affect the rest of us?

Some publishers say that they cannot afford to print one set of textbooks for Texas and a separate one for the rest of the country. So Texas affects the nation.

Are there other groups advocating different forms of protest?

The Council for Interracial Books for Children in one of its editorials asked publishers to recall all textbooks with what they considered racist statements. Some local chapters of the National Organization for Women have been successful in having books removed because of sexist language or sexist pictures.

Why do you object to the removal of such books?

It seems to me that the removal of books written in the past is the same as an attempt to rewrite history. We cannot and should not protect the young from the ideas of others. I think we should expose them to as many ideas as we possibly can so they will have a strong foundation on which to build their own ideas.

How does censorship affect the student?

If censors succeed in limiting the discussion of ideas, the children suffer irrevocably. In Warsaw, Ind., a number of high school students said that as a result of censorship, teachers were afraid to discuss any controversial issues or bring into the classroom any literature that might be considered controversial.

Then do you advocate complete freedom in the classroom?

I do not believe that anything goes. I believe in a very careful selection of books and teaching materials for specific grade levels or specific communities. I resent the fact that some of my critics have said that I believe in hard-core pornography in the classroom. That is insane.

How would you handle parental complaints?

There should be procedures set up so that if a book is questioned, an appropriate group of parents, teachers and administrators read the whole book and deal with it on the basis of intelligent review. If these parties all agree that the book should be removed, that is part of the democratic process.

What usually happens to books that are censored?

They become best-sellers. The quickest way to get a kid to read a book is to censor it.

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