Sponsored by the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association, and a variety of other groups, Banned Books Week (29 September to 6 October 2007) celebrated the first amendment right to free speech, which includes the right to read and write books that are considered unorthodox or controversial. A banned book is one that has actually been removed from a library or school system, a "challenged" book is the attempt to ban such material.

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US state schools still censor
educational reading material

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

24 November 2007: In September 2007, Anchorage (Alaska) Mayor Mark Begich read aloud at a public forum from The Chocolate War, a novel for young adults about a boy who is bullied and beaten in school. Since its publication in 1974, The Chocolate War has been banned by public school systems in dozens of US cities because it contains obscenities. It is one of many books that have been prohibited from classroom use because of objections over their content.

Mayor Begich read in support of Banned Books Week, an annual national observance against censorship sponsored by the American Library Association. About 100 other US mayors including Mayor Dave Cieslewicz of Madison (Wisconsin) and Mayor Francis Slay of St. Louis (Missouri) also observed Banned Books Week to generate enlightened discussion about censorship.

Public pressures
State and local Boards of Education, responsible for operating public school systems, are often under pressure from parents, legislators, clergy, and other self-appointed book editors and censors.

In 2007, the Hillsborough County (Tampa) Florida County Commissioners voted five-to-one to ban reference to Gay Pride in county schools and libraries. In 2004, the Texas Board of Education agreed to require publishers of health textbooks to change phrases such as “when two people marry” to “when a man and woman marry.” Unhealthy words such as bacon, butter, and French fries have been expunged from California textbooks. In 2002, former Mayor Carolyn Risher of Inglis, Florida issued a proclamation banning the word “Satan” from Inglis city limits, including school classrooms. (The Ingliss City Council rescinded the proclamation.)

The censorship of educational materials began in earnest in the 1960s with protests by liberals against racist and patronizing views of minorities and woman in school books. It gained heighten attention in 2005 when the Kansas Board of Education, under pressure from conservatives, mandated that public school science teachers could teach alternatives to evolution. For forty years in the US, both liberals and conservatives have righteously demanded that children in public schools read only politically correct words and ideas, or that religious beliefs be presented equally in a science class.  

The controversy is constitutional as well as moral. The US Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and the separation of church and state. However, US courts, charged with interpreting the Constitution, have not drawn clear lines between free speech and censorship or between church and state, and thus the ideological crusades continue.

Means or ends
Former Rochester (New York) Mayor Bill Johnson has suggested that our educational system must be viewed in less absolute terms. “Education is a means, not an end,” he said. In other words, education should not be limited to preparing individuals to get a job, but as a catalyst to learning more. The value of education is in learning how to search for one’s own thoughts.

Unfortunately, this has become a luxury for many Americans trying to succeed in the global economy. For example, rather than think about how well they are performing their jobs, accelerating deadlines and schedules propel workers toward familiar ways to react. As a result, when they should be thinking, Americans often resort to visceral, emotional reactions as opposed to rational, much more considered thought.

These circumstances present the ideal conditions for those who would challenge Darwin’s theory of evolution in hope of inserting other “theories” to explain the origins of life. Numerous studies have shown that most Americans have forgotten what they learned in science classes – especially that a scientific theory is based on a method of experimentation. Those who pressure state and local school boards to include a religious-based creationism theory in science textbooks are relying on Americans not to recall that scientific principal.

Children as victims
The persistence of censorship in public schools shows just how much America has become a nation of warriors, battling over the ideas that separate the various factions. As in all wars, from Belfast to Baghdad, children are being dragged along to prolong the ideological crusades.

Forty per cent of American children in eighth grade are not proficient in reading, accord to the National Center for Education Statistics. Beginning with President Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative, there has been a push at both the federal and state levels to raise educational test scores in public schools.

But, except for a few activist mayors and librarians and their supporters, there is no corresponding effort to curb censorship. Limiting what children can read, may also limit what they can think. The real threat of censorship in America is that not enough young people will develop curious minds capable of independent thought.

It’s bad enough when American children can’t read. It will be far worse if they can’t think.

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