What Johnny Shouldn't Read: Textbook Censorship in America

Rating: +

Joan Delfattore


Behind the notion of a public school, and the separation of church and state, is the ideal that any child, regardless of religion, should be able to receive an education without their beliefs being violated or denigrated, while at the same time ensuring that no religion is taught or impressed upon the students. The modern textbook censorship issue, as described by Delfattore, occupies a center ground, in which each side claims that the other is violating these principles. Delfattore lays out a handful of textbook censorship lawsuits and describes the opposing positions through a predominately legal lens.

To take one of her examples, a group of fundamentalist Christian protestors sued their school board to get rid of English textbooks including stories containing magic, intra-family conflict, respect for animals, or demonstrations of self-determinism or critical thinking. Their position was that their religious beliefs not only disallowed believing in these things, but reading about these ideas at all was forbidden. Hence, the state was infringing on their religious freedom. On the flip side, parents supporting the textbook argued that using only textbooks in accordance with a particular strain of strict Christianity (which included forbidding any implication that one has control over one's life or decision-making power over one's own behavior) would be imposing a religious belief upon students at the school. The issue is complicated by the contention on the part of the protestors, shared in most of the cases discussed, that the position of creativity, self-determination and tolerance is in fact a religion as well - the religion of secular humanism - and schools are simply choosing to endorse this religion rather than Christianity.

Delfattore is clearly on the side of the school district in this case, and appears to agree with their stance that such a rigid belief system cannot be accommodated in a public school while retaining neutrality towards other faiths (something with which the protestors would agree but would claim is a good thing). While I suspect my politics are relatively close to Delfattore's, I still felt that  she did an admirable job of presenting both sides of this issue. She stressed the fact that the protestors were asking for the ability to guide their children's education, and not have their rights as parents to raise their children in the faith of their choice violated.

After describing a number of these cases, including a couple concerning the inclusion of evolution and/or creationism in a curriculum and some cases of liberal protestors suing for more inclusion of minorities and women in non-traditional roles in texts, Delfattore points out that the common thread in the rulings is that courts lean towards upholding the local school board's actions unless clearly teaching a religion, or prohibiting a religious belief. She goes on in her final chapters to describe how these cases still change what is taught in schools, even if protestors tend to lose, by the impact these cases have on textbook publishers. In order to avoid the negative publicity surrounding a lawsuit, and to produce books appealing to the widest audience, textbook publishers are editing out content which might be deemed problematic to any group, regardless of the tenability of their position. Thus, a protest against a textbook can have an impact on what is taught, even if is appears that their complaint is dismissed.

I found this book very well researched and well written. By focusing the book on the legal issues, using specific protests as examples, Delfattore is able to explain the current legal status of textbook challenges in this country clearly. I felt that the arguments on both sides were made in a compelling manner; while I could guess which side she stood on in each case, I did not feel that the issues were presented unfairly. Details such as the agencies funding each side of the lawsuits are consistently given and the tensions between and biases of the parties in question are described in a way to lend this occasionally dense work moments of compelling human interest as well. Coming in at about 180 pages plus references, it is also a quick read. I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in censorship, or the state of education in America today.

Review written April 2002.


Return to Amanda's Review Page

All contents of this site copyright, contact amh@io.com with any questions or comments.