Theme Panel: School Wars? Book Banning, Academic Freedom, and Teacher Discretion

School Wars? Book Banning, Academic Freedom, and Teacher Discretion

Co-sponsored by Division 59: Education Politics and Policy
Virtual Full Paper Panel

(Discussant) Robert Maranto, University of Arkansas; (Discussant) Robert Mickey, University of Michigan; (Chair) Rob Reich, Stanford University

Session Description:
This panel looks to intellectual history, normative theory, and survey research to ask whether academic and pedagogical freedom is at risk, or whether concerns about censorship and academic freedom are overblown. In exploring these possibilities, the presenters consider the role of k-12 educators (Cloward paper), the experience of social science college faculty (Liu and Cox papers), and the history of conflict over book banning (Koganzon paper). These papers relate to the APSA 2022 theme “Rethink, Restructure, and Reconnect: Towards A Post-Pandemic Political Science” in that they explore how and whether educators at both the k-12 and college levels can teach and write freely, allowing them to adequately, in the words of the theme statement, “produce and teach leadership and accountability.”


Politics in the Classroom: Justifying Teacher Authority and Discretion
Joseph Cloward, Stanford University

K-12 educators can quickly find themselves the subject of public debate when they take the wrong stance on controversial political issues in the classroom. Tense debates over masking, virtual schooling, and vaccine mandates have only made classrooms more politically fraught. Granting teachers discretion in the way they approach controversial issues is just one aspect of the authority the public delegates to teachers. How much discretion should we give teachers to discuss controversial issues and what is the nature of a teacher’s authority? The common-sense view encourages teacher neutrality and sees teachers as vehicles for delivering democratically approved curricula, but this view quickly proves untenable given the myriad politically relevant decisions teachers must make in their day-to-day practice. Researchers in education have addressed this problem as a pedagogical matter, but rarely consider the role of the teacher within a democratic political system in which the state mandates compulsory education. Democratic theorists, on the other hand, have much to say about the proper ends of education and how we collectively enact them, but say relatively little on the individual teacher’s role in making decisions within that process. This paper offers a cautious defense of the political discretion of K-12 teachers by developing a political theory of teacher authority. Teacher authority is in part similar to the public authority we delegate to other agents of the state, like bureaucrats, social workers, and police officers. Each of these officials is a citizen in a web of relationships with other citizens, including those they directly serve and those to whom they must give an account of their service. Teachers are unique, however, because their role makes them answerable both to young citizens who are not yet politically active and to parents, who themselves bear unique responsibilities. Drawing on Hannah Arendt’s writing on education, I argue that teachers possess and exercise authority in their classrooms by virtue of their professional expertise, their institutional position, and their role as responsible intermediaries between their students and the broader society. I argue that the state can better fulfill its goal of preparing children for democratic citizenship by allowing teachers to exercise political discretion, within certain bounds. A teacher’s exercise of political discretion is a legitimate use of her authority when she offers justification to students and community members and observes the constraints Gutmann proposed for democratic education: nonrepression and nondiscrimination.

Academic Freedom and the Virtual Space
Shan-Jan Sarah Liu, University of Edinburgh

Academic freedom has been under threat across the world, ranging from the United Kingdom politician declaring critical race theory to be dangerous to Brazilian politician instructed students to film and report teachers expressing views opposed to President Bolsonaro. Such a threat has only exacerbated as most of the higher educator has moved research and teaching to an online space. Using a survey of over 1,000 academic faculty in the social sciences and arts and humanities across universities of Scotland, this article examines how faculty experience academic freedom since the pandemic started. Our preliminary analysis shows that multiple factors shape the way academic freedom is threatened or preserved in the academic community. On the contextual level, the university academic freedom policy enables faculty to exercise academic freedom while individual factors, such as one’s rank and race, encourage faculty to self-censor in order to protect one’s job security and career interests. The study offers important implications on how academic freedom is currently experienced by scholars, as well as how the higher education sector can work together to ensure that all members of the academia community have the safety and privilege to teach and research without self-censorship or external political pressure.

There’s No Such Thing as a Banned Book: Authority and the 1970s School Book Wars
Rita Koganzon, University of Virginia

As political battles over school curricula between parents, public educators, and school boards heat up across the country once again, we might wonder why such conflicts have been so resistant to resolution over the past half-century. In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled in Pico v. Island Trees that students have a “right to read,” and boards and parents cannot remove books from classrooms and libraries, a ruling which should have resolved the question, but in fact did nothing to limit the challenges mounted against school districts. This paper re-examines the Pico decision and the public debates in the 1970s between children’s book authors, educators, and parents that led up to it to examine why that decision was so ineffective, and the way that the initial framing of the conflict over school curricula continues to fuel ongoing debate today. Drawing on newspaper and magazine coverage, scholarly and professional publications, and the arguments presented in the federal courts that led up to the Pico decision, this article excavates the intellectual history of the school censorship debate. The debate began with the advent in the late 1960s of a new genre of adolescent literature, often called “young adult” (YA) books, and the conscious effort on the part of its authors – writers like Judy Blume, Richard Peck, and others – to transforms cultural understandings of coming of age, and to substitute their books for the moral authority of what they saw as unenlightened parents. Although YA books were far from universally embraced by parents, they did find a receptive audience in librarians and educators, whose writings from this period I turn to next to show how professional educators saw YA books as pedagogical vehicles for an analogous project to press the secondary literature curriculum into the service of moral reform. When faced with pushback from parents and boards against this project, YA writers and professional educators changed the terms of their battle for educational authority into a legal debate about the rights of children against censorship, not only obscuring the nature of the conflict, but undermining the very pedagogical authority they sought in the process. I conclude by examining the confused way that federal courts in the 1970s responded to this conflict between parents and school boards on one hand, and writers and educators on the other, and considering how the underdeveloped result of this decade of litigation and public conflict reflects a broader crisis of authority over children in American education. This essay challenges the prevailing narrative about “banned books” in schools. I argue that, with respect to children and adolescents, there never was any such practice as what we popularly call “book banning,” at least not by any conventional standard of censorship. Building on the recent historical work of scholars like Campbell Scribner and Richard Arum, who have examined how conflicts over authority have been transmuted into battles over rights in other aspects of schooling, I argue that such “book banning” should more properly be understood as a transformation and displacement of the much broader twentieth-century contest between professionals and parents over who has the final authority in children’s education, a contest which persists to this day. Understanding book banning in this light both explains its stubborn persistence despite supposed illegality, and more importantly, it reveals the self-defeating nature of the move to cloak adult authority behind the banner of students’ rights.

Academic Freedom and International Branch Campuses
Gloria S. Cox, University of North Texas

Academic Freedom and International Branch Campuses: The Effects of U.S.-Sponsored IBCs on Academic Freedom International Branch Campuses (IBCs) have proliferated in the early twenty-first century so that there are now about three hundred, including 86 that are sponsored by U.S. colleges and universities. IBCs are located all around the world, in free states and otherwise. How does academic freedom, that most cherished value of higher education, fare in IBCs? In 2020, Freedom House issued a special report that expressed concern about international branch campuses being located in authoritarian states and the effects on academic freedom. The Freedom House report assessed IBCs on a worldwide basis, while this paper focuses just on the IBCs that are sponsored by colleges and universities within the United States. My paper first identifies the types of encroachments on academic freedom that are most likely to occur at international branch campuses, and then establishes a typology of those infringements of academic freedom for future investigation.

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