Censorship in academia stunts progress

Art by Lisa Kam | Daily Trojan

Most eighth graders might blush and laugh uncertainly when they hear their classmates read the N-Word aloud in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In 2004, Garvey Jackson, a 13-year-old attending school in Hillsborough, N.C., was not as amused as his peers. After studying Lee’s novel in English class, Jackson went to school dressed in a shirt covered with the book’s many racial slurs, claiming that if the N-word is “good enough for the book, it’s good enough for the shirt.”

Earlier this month, the Biloxi Public School District in Mississippi echoed that sentiment when it removed To Kill a Mockingbird from its curriculum based on debates over the novel’s “uncomfortable” language — perhaps the same language that appeared on Jackson’s shirt.

Universities — centers for the advancement of modern academia — should not be afraid of the truth, but they, too, are not immune to the occasional act of book-banning. For instance, in 2008, officials at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis accused student janitor Keith John Sampson of racial harassment for reading a book about the Ku Klux Klan. Although Sampson obtained the book from the university’s library, officials still reprimanded him, comparing the instance to “bringing pornography to work.” After multiple complaints from the the American Civil Liberties Union and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the university’s chancellor officially apologized to Sampson, emphasizing the school’s belief in free expression.

The issue of censorship on college campuses was again brought to debate last year, when the University of Wisconsin-Stout removed murals depicting Native Americans and French fur traders from its walls. Although the paintings in question did not overtly depict any oppression of Native Americans, the university’s chancellor advocated that the murals be taken down because the art “symbolizes an era of their history where land and possessions were taken away from [Native Americans], and [students] feel bad when they look at them.” The chancellor believed that removing the potentially offensive paintings would “attract more Native American students to the university.”

In both cases, the universities sacrificed their core values based on weak attempts to uphold the image of political correctness; banning a book or taking down a mural does nothing to end the marginalization of minorities. On the contrary, these actions can worsen the problem, as we cannot confront our issues if we do not fully understand what they are. As models for higher learning, universities must stand firm in their commitment to giving their students a complete and honest education — and fully exposing them to the truth is an important part of that.

But criticizing a school’s limitations on free expression by no means offers a blank check for people to freely wave the Confederate flag and glorify racist ideologies as a celebration of their “history.” Classroom settings provide students with a crucial platform to engage in open discussion with their peers and learn from their viewpoints without feeling threatened. Exposure to a safe environment is critical to forming both an emotional and logical understanding of pressing social issues, and it can encourage students to make informed decisions when they approach these problems in the future.

The aforementioned school policies not only inhibit progress, but also undermine the principles of political correctness that they claim to uphold in the first place. The basic purpose of being politically correct is to exercise tolerance, as we cannot move forward as a society if we alienate minority populations along the way. But these schools seem to have taken this notion and run away with it. It is one thing to ask people to stop using the N-word; it is another to prevent them from ever seeing it. Discomfort with the realities of minorities’ experiences should not be a hindrance to intellectual development.

While the complaints of a few public schools in Mississippi may seem inconsequential, their arguments are just some of many that demand controversial books be banned from the school system. In fact, a Washington Post report on the topic states that last year, more than 300 formal complaints were issued against popular literary works such as the Harry Potter series, Fahrenheit 451 and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

If anything, that Lee’s book, which was published 57 years ago, remains a source of heated debate only proves the enduring need for it to remain in school curriculum. The groundbreaking novel has long been a critical resource for younger students, encouraging a sense of open-mindedness through its insightful portrayal of racism, social class and gender roles — serious themes that need serious words to communicate them. The education system must realize that censorship cannot be justified by discomfort. We cannot deal with major issues by pretending they do not exist.

In its entirety, the advocacy for educational censorship represents regressive attitudes that continue to plague schools today — and considering the divisive state of the current political climate, that argument does not seem to be leaving anytime soon. For now, perhaps school officials can benefit from taking a closer look at the books they decide to ban.

6 replies
  1. PaintedSlate
    PaintedSlate says:

    I agree that “advocacy for educational censorship represents regressive attitudes that continue to plague schools today.” This is a problem, but it’s also far too easy to overblow individual cases and also the problem as a whole. People are looking to read things that make them feel anger among other emotions, so its easy money. But let’s resist that and be clear about each case. Call a spade a spade. For example, the painting above was historically inaccurate in the direction of common misconceptions and merely moved from a hallway display to a gallery display that is much less frequented. The move can be criticized as not being the best choice. Perhaps students would prefer to stop in the middle of the hallway to read a detailed description about the history involved in the painting versus the reality it did not represent. That could probably be done well enough. But as it really was, in the hallway, it was not benefiting anyone’s education. And it was neither true nor provoking confrontation with the truth in any meaningful sense. And if the average lesson learned is untrue, if anything, then why should it be defended in that context? Only those who already knew the lesson could perceive it at all.

    Full exposure to the truth is extremely important. And the characterization of that decision in the above article does not do that. In order to really push the value of truth in the face of discomfort or disagreement or other challenges, we need to be clear about what’s what. Lumping together serious mistakes and trivial, arguable ones is counterproductive, especially when it requires a misleading narrative. Point is, we shouldn’t be stretching the truth to fit, especially when the point is to promote truth.

  2. Steve
    Steve says:

    How will people cope with the realities of the world when all the things that make them uneasy are removed? Struggle is a part of life as are confrontational ideals and differing opinions. Shouting down those with whom we disagree rather than engage and discuss teaches us nothing – least of all, tolerance.

    • Don Harmon
      Don Harmon says:

      Steve, you don’t get the principle behind banning literature, art or music that protected groups might find distasteful. Likewise, these protected groups must have “safe spaces.” In the safe spaces, even the most sympathetic and friendly, of non-protected persons must be barred from entry. The reason for that is, that the protected groups may find non-protected people distasteful, because of the concept that they are somehow priveleged.

      Discussion, understanding, empathy and tolerance, between protected and non-protected like you advocate, are to be shunned and eliminated. Why? Because a thought or word or mention of historical or present injustice might be found offensive by the protected class. And they must be protected at all cost.

      • Steve
        Steve says:

        Don, where would the civil rights movement be if your way of thinking was adopted by Dr. King? Where do you get such arrogance as to think you and people of like mind can dictate to the people you define as protected? Why would you assume that you have that power over them? Did it ever occur to you that they are capable of running their own lives? How will these “protected” people EVER be able to work with all the potential distasteful things they may run into in the course of a day? Are they to be exempted from earning a living and providing for their families? Its a ridiculous concept.

        Don, you and people like you are trying to turn minorities into a protected class of people you can control and dictate policy of how to run their lives and steal their power. They don’t need you. They are capable of controlling their own lives and accomplishing great things. What you are doing is advocating racism and separatism in a new form. Don, Hitler banned music, books, and paintings he decided distasteful. In America we have freedom that is guaranteed by the Constitution. Freedom to write a book, compose a song, and paint a painting. The Constitution makes us all equal and provides the same opportunity. Your protected class doesn’t adhere to the definition of equality. It sets one group above others and creates tyranny. A tyranny in which YOU and others like you seek to control. Let me be the first to say we don’t need you.

        • Alistair
          Alistair says:

          I understand your anger, but I think you might be putting it on the wrong person.

          Personally, I don’t think Steve necessarily supports the actions he was describing.

          I think that he’s trying to describe their logic, as boneheaded as it might be.

          • Steve
            Steve says:

            You have no idea what I am thinking. If you did, you would not make the mistake of thinking I am angry. I am incredulous to the idea that people in academia can have such racist tendencies and not see it. It appears they feel they are doing something noble, when in fact they are minimizing the abilities of this “protected group” thinking they must raise them up like a god or royalty. I was waiting for Don to say he washed one of the persons feet with his hair. In fact they are co-opting their status as minority to give themselves a righteous platform in which to speak and thereby elevate themselves. It is not a selfless act they seek, but self enrichment and accolades from the like-minded that they are somehow advancing culture rather than oppressing those they claim to help and defend. You wanted to know what I think? Well, there it is.

            All most people want is to be treated fairly and have an equal opportunity at what they define as the American dream. A home, a business, to raise their children in a good neighborhood, etc. Unfortunately, it all gets convoluted by bullshit like the stuff Don is shoveling.

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