The stories we read in books, and the stories we learn about the past, help shape our view of ourselves, of others, and of our society. Education researcher Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop writes:
Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror.”
The ways in which students see themselves and others reflected in the narratives they encounter in their humanities courses can help them gain an understanding of their own identities and our national identities.
The potential for social studies and English Language Arts classes and available books to impact young people’s development has made them a target for political debate today, and throughout US history. Various individuals, elected officials and organized groups have sought to influence young people’s views of themselves and their perceptions of the United States by controlling the stories they encounter at school.
Most recently, between January 2021 and January 2023, 18 states enacted legislation that restricts the teaching of “critical race theory,” a framework that holds that laws, policies, and institutions in the United States have been used to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequality based on race.
The term is often evoked in legislation and media coverage without being defined. New legislation also limits how teachers can discuss racism, sexism, gender identity, or topics that are deemed “controversial,” which can make it difficult for educators to fully represent periods of United States history such as slavery or the civil rights movement.
Campaigns to restrict the teaching of certain topics have also targeted the literature available to students in their classes and school libraries. During the 2021-2022 school year, 138 school districts across 32 states banned a total of over 2,500 books from their schools.
Many of these books address topics related to gender identity, sexuality, or race.
Throughout US history, schools across every region of the country have banned both fiction and non-fiction books that school leaders, parents, or politicians perceived as threatening to their values. One of the most successful campaigns to restrict the teaching of history occurred in the South following the Civil War. Between 1870 and 1910, more public schools were built across the South, and as access to public education became more widespread, white activists sought to censor the history students learned.
The organization United Daughters of the Confederacy—whose members identified as descendants of Southern Civil War soldiers—were integral in efforts across the South to ban textbooks that contained accurate and critical portrayals of slavery or that criticized Southern Civil War leaders.
The president of the United Daughters in 1903 gave a speech in which she described reading a northern textbook as a girl and “hot blood came to my cheeks” in embarrassment for what she saw as a biased portrayal of the South.
Southern states created textbook committees that had the power to determine which history textbooks would be used in public schools across the state, and thus control how the history of the South was presented. In 1904, members of the United Daughters proudly claimed that every state in the South had adopted history books that praised the South.
As a result of these campaigns textbook companies created different versions of their history books for northern and southern audiences.
Another significant moment in the history of curriculum censorship in the US occurred following World War II. In the late 1940s and 1950s, a coalition of activists around the country grew concerned that young people might be exposed to communist ideas or foreign influences in schools.
These activists sought to prevent educators from introducing students to different forms of government and to focus instead on teaching American history.
While this movement was not as successful as the one to change history education in the South after the Civil War, activists were able to influence the selection of textbooks in some school districts and manage to oust school leaders including the nationally-known progressive educator Willard Goslin, who was superintendent of Pasadena schools in California from 1948 until he was forced to resign in 1950.
Each generation has grappled with questions around who should be included in our concept of the nation, which individual identities are culturally acceptable, and how events from the past shape our present society. The moment we are in now is not the first time division around how to answer these questions has played out in classrooms and school libraries, and it will likely not be the last.
But, even in an exceptionally divisive environment, we at Facing History remain committed to helping teachers and students make important connections between history and our lives today. We know that teachers and students are capable of grappling with complex questions about our nation’s history and about our society today. We encourage students and teachers to become more aware, more thoughtful, and more deliberate in the way they interact with the world around them. Far from driving us apart from one another, embracing the narratives of all people—including historically marginalized groups and individuals—helps to build common understanding and ethical civic engagement across society.