from Education Blog

Censorship as a Dangerous Tightrope

by:  Allan Smith

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011


Teaching at its best is a delicate balancing act. Teachers, like skillful tightrope walkers, must often teeter between what they know is good pedagogical practice, what their students need and want, what their students’ parents demand, and what school administrators ask them to do. Finding alignment among their many requisite tasks may seem challenging, if not downright impossible. As we tell the teaching candidates in our classes, teaching is not for the faint-hearted. The job at its best requires graceful balance and skillful decision making. If we add to all of this the specter of a threat regarding the choice of literature that is taught or methods for teaching reading and writing, and the possible ensuing public uproar that can occur, teachers may indeed feel that they are walking a very tenuous and dangerous tightrope.

Teachers can see censorship as the frayed edge or slippery spot on their tightrope from which they can fall at any moment once the process of a book challenge is begun. In fact, when teachers have “fallen” from grace during or after a district- or community-wide censorship debate that began in their classrooms, they have been known to lose the support of colleagues and supervisors (Tigner-Rasanen, 2001), lose confidence (Agee, 1999), and even lose their professional lives when fired (Lacks, 1997). Lakoff and Johnson (1980) pointed out that metaphors are “among our principal vehicles for understanding” (p. 159), and certainly the metaphor of censorship as a dangerous tightrope is very helpful to understand the stresses that teachers feel when books are challenged or when even the threat of a censorship debate forces them to act in ways that they ordinarily wouldn’t.

The case of Cissy Lacks (1997) is a disturbing reminder of just how dangerous censorship can be to teachers. By most accounts, Lacks was a creative and ambitious teacher at Berkeley High School in a suburb of St. Louis for well over 20 years when she was suspended without warning from her classroom in 1995 for allowing her students to write dramatic scenes about their lives using the authentic voices that they heard daily. Lacks had been using this method for a number of years to push her reticent students to write and, particularly, to show students that both their lives and their voices are important. The resulting scenes included a good amount of profane language.

Lacks filmed the dramatic scenes so that, as she later explained, students could critique their productions and discuss how different types of language are used for different purposes in daily lives. Though Lacks had promised her students that the videos that they made would be aired only for and during the class, the tapes were confiscated by her principal, and after a public hearing in which portions of the films were shown, Lacks was fired. In 1996, a federal court claimed that Lacks’ academic freedom had been violated and that the school board had discriminated against her because of race since her, a white teacher, had used with her African American students methods that were similar to those used by African American teachers to stimulate the creativity and engagement of students like hers (Lacks, 1997).

She was awarded a large sum and reinstated in her job, but this decision was reversed in a court of appeals in 1998 (Simpson, 1998). Though Lacks was later awarded the PEN/Newman’s Own Award, which is given each year to one person in the United States who has defended First Amendment rights at a personal risk, she is no longer teaching. Lacks’s case is often cited as an example of the dangerous spots on the tightrope that teachers walk-creative, student-centered, innovative teachers, in particular-when they attempt to push the thinking of their students by introducing them to texts about complex social issues and diverse cultures. Such a challenge-or even the threat of one-can interrupt the budding confidence of inexperienced teachers, the support of colleagues and supervisors who abandon the challenged teacher in moments of crisis, and the intact reputations of experienced, formerly confident teachers.

Fearing the unsettling repercussions of cases like Lacks’ that have been witnessed firsthand or, perhaps, only heard about, more experienced teachers are apt to teach in ways that allow them to “avoid a hassle” and less experienced teachers are very likely to make “safe” choices, especially in their selection of literature-even when they know that such decisions and choices make them less than the excellent teachers they desire to be.

Agee (1999) wrote about teachers that she studied who, fearing threats of challenges and censorship chose “safe” books to study with their classes, selected “safe” methods for teaching literature, and made decisions about both their teaching and their curriculum based upon how they might protect themselves from possible complaints by parents or other potential censors. “A particularly insidious effect of censorship,” wrote Agee, “is its power to silence teachers” (p. 62). All but one of the teachers in her study had, to greater or lesser degrees, largely sublimated their desires to use nontraditional, multicultural texts or books that dealt with controversial social issues out of caution, outright fear, or a desire to avoid the disruption of book challenges. Yolen (cited in Newman, 1995) called this type of self-censorship by teachers “gray censorship,” and she explains it this way:

Everyone in the teaching community turns to one another and says, “This took up too much money and too much time and too much energy. Next time, let’s be more careful….” It’s like winning the battle and losing the war.

The war, of course, is a struggle for freedom of speech and a fight for the rights of children and young adults to question their own assumptions, to hear perspectives with which they are unfamiliar, to confront stereotypes, and to have secure (vicarious) experiences through which they can connect with the wider world.

Once again, as we saw by employing the former two metaphors, when we look at censorship as a dangerous tightrope, we can see that censorship impinges upon First Amendment rights of children and adolescents and severely limits their opportunities to expand their worldviews. When school superintendents or principals arbitrarily order the removal of books from school libraries, when librarians decide that though a challenged book has not been banned they will remove it from the library’s shelves to avoid future challenges, or when teachers plan only a “safe” literature curriculum to head off conflict and confrontations from objecting parents, students are denied opportunities to explore, to question, and to learn about something that someone else has decided they would find fearful or “corrupting.” Thus, they will miss powerful lessons in significant books, and the education that results will be less than it could or should be.