Literacy, Literature, and Censorship: The High Cost of No Child Left Behind

By Lehr, Susan Stewart | Childhood Education, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Literacy, Literature, and Censorship: The High Cost of No Child Left Behind


Lehr, Susan Stewart, Childhood Education


   Who kills a man, kills a reasonable creatures God's image;
   but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself,
   kills the image of God....

   If we think to regulate printing, thereby to rectify manners,
   we must regulate all recreations and pastimes,
   all that is delightful to man.

   --Areopagitica, John Milton, 1644

In 1985, Mel Gabler, the well-known textbook censor and founder of Education Research Analysts, said, "Humanists are aggressive and evangelistic. They are adept at tearing down traditional faith, even if it means permitting the occult to enter the classroom. They are skilled at pouring their anti-God dogmas into the void." In the video Books Under Fire, Gabler said:

   If you're talking about censorship, it's the traditional values
   which have been censored. Schools are indoctrinating children
   against their home-taught values.... Textbooks largely determine
   how a nation votes, what it becomes, and where it goes. Your
   textbooks across the nation are selected by a tiny percentage of
   the educators and since children become what they are taught, the
   philosophy selected by this tiny percentage will become the
   philosophy taught to our children.

In the United States, the combination of No Child Left Behind, socially conservative politics, and censorship have had a devastating impact on the vital role of children's literature in elementary classrooms. High-stakes testing and phonics mandates have resulted in a restricted and homogenized curriculum in far too many schools. In the 1990s, using the Hatch Amendment, socially conservative groups like the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, and Concerned Women for America began a systematic attack on books, curricula, and teaching methods. Ultimately, they were quite successful in controlling and restricting curriculum (Simmons & Dresang, 2001). The Hatch Amendment, which was passed in 1979 and amended in 1994, provided parents with access to and approval over all instructional materials. Ultimately, Simmons and Dresang assert, that amendment became a lever for social conservatives to control classroom curriculum and pedagogy. I believe that one of the ultimate results of the No Child Left Behind Act is control of the literacy curriculum at a national level.

This battle over children's books, textbooks, pedagogy, and literacy curriculum is at the core of a true divide between two broadly defined groups that stand in opposition to each other. Their beliefs are different and their goals are different. Their means of obtaining knowledge and education are different. One group is intent on limiting or controlling the content to which children can be exposed--all children, not just their own children. Many use fundamentalist religious ideas and morality as their motivation to control which children's books and authors can be used in the classroom. The focus of these conservative groups has shifted from overt forms of censoring individual books and authors to controlling the methodologies used for literacy instruction in the elementary classroom. "Scientifically based reading" instruction has become their mantra and, not coincidentally, the underpinning of the No Child Left Behind Act. This static view of education is in direct conflict with the group frequently labeled as "liberal." This group supports children's authors who tackle complex and difficult topics in a sensitive and relevant manner, and people from this group want their children to have access to these books at home, at school, and in the public library. Their beliefs are often premised on civil liberties rather than religious ideas, and they embrace the collision of ideas in the classroom, viewing education as having more volatility in its delivery.

I see no bridging of the chasm between these two positions, because ideas are dangerous and books are untamed. As Stephen Simmer has said: "Outside these intellectual cages, we are terrified that they might crawl inside us, but it is inside us that they belong" (1992, p. …

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