‘A complete failure’: academic censorship on campuses at epidemic level, report finds

Almost 200 scholarly books have been blocked, banned or pulped since 1986 in some of the country’s largest schools and libraries, according to a new report released on Friday.

Hundreds of studies and case studies published in US libraries and schools since the Ronald Reagan administration have helped show that the deliberate removal of such books, which are widely available to the public, is a widespread practice. Researchers for “Porn and Freedom”, a project run by the American Library Association and the Center for Constitutional Rights, have linked textbook publishers and other organizations to more than 550 works of academic scholarship that were removed, censored or denied access to the classroom, according to their newly released report.

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They say the attempts are most common in public schools, where 86% of censored and banned books were supplied by public school districts, and the majority of censored and banned books were assigned in grades 4-7. Examples include books on cheating, poetry and revolutionary heroes.

Some books were destroyed or have been hidden from the public through “community consultation” by book withdrawal, says the study, which also concludes that 52% of educators say there is “no effective way to know if schools have, in fact, ever censored books”.

As the report points out, censoring a work of scholarship raises serious questions about its author’s freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and the dissemination of education resources must have an open dialogue with the public about objective history.

“The US educational system does a poor job keeping records on what books are censored and why,” said Aron Gampel, a professor at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and co-author of the report. “Part of the problem is we are in a moment when we are trying to make cultural history accessible for every individual person and because we have such disparate educational resources.”

“Porn and Freedom” also found that even books “of comparable cultural import” such as classics such as Romeo and Juliet and Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, which were not targeted by the censorship campaigns, were removed or censored.

“Given the powerful cultural influence of classics – like Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Catcher in the Rye – it was especially shocking to see how nearly every academic book [in the survey] was used, to one degree or another, as a symbolic or targeted example of a ‘sexually specific’ book,” the report says.

“There is also growing evidence that censoring and banning is increasing,” it adds. “In 2010 a dozen states banned sex education in schools, nearly one in four used the issue to introduce pornography, all kinds of cultural activists at school were railing against ‘perverted religions’, and public surveys showed that at least 40% of the population was dubious about the official sex education curriculum.”

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Libraries and schools are often reluctant to discuss the events that led to the removal of a work of non-fiction or educational literature. “But there are deep feelings about these issues and, in the book banning context, there is often a long history of connection between that project and what comes out from the court to the email policy,” said Jim Humes, head of the New York City librarians’ union and co-author of the report.

“It’s up to people to access the work and find out what was done. There are a range of strategies, but it starts with showing that this is the fact,” he said. “All of these people that are involved need to understand what the motivations are and have the courage to tell what happened.”

This report comes three years after Librarians United for Academic Freedom, which has two presidents – to Congress and New York City libraries – reported that 1,810 non-fiction books had been banned, restricted or refused access to students since the 2003/04 school year. The same year, a Princeton sociologist, Robert Gumpert, completed a study into the so-called “Harvard Classics” – works of classic literature from the British and British schools that serve as a benchmark for new books in American schools. His report found an alarming spread of these books to high schools in which a shocking 10% of high school graduates had not been exposed to these works.

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