At the Schoolhouse Gate: Lessons in Intellectual Freedom
reviewed by Anne E. Phillips - 2003
Title: At the Schoolhouse Gate: Lessons in Intellectual Freedom
Author(s): Gloria Pipkin, Releah Cossett Lent and Susan Ohanian
Publisher: Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH
ISBN: 0325003955, Pages: 256, Year: 2002
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Censorship in the schools became a major political issue in the United States during the 1980s. It accompanied the presidential victory of the conservative wing of the Republican Party with Ronald Reagan's election. Censorship was fueled by the moral certainty of organized religious fundamentalists who claimed that secular humanism was a religion and was promoted in many textbooks.
This was the political climate facing Gloria Pipkin and ReLeah Cossett Lent, who tell their stories in At the Schoolhouse Gate: Lessons in Intellectual Freedom. Pipkin and Lent were confronted with censorship campaigns run by members of the religious right who were assisted by a sympathetic school administration and school board. The book is constructed in three parts. The first part is Pipkin's narrative of her struggle against the effort to censor the books in her high school. In the second part Lent tells the story of her struggle against censorship of a student newspaper. The third part includes the authors' analyses, recommendations, and suggestions.
As English department chair at the Mowat Junior High School in Florida, Pipkin developed a literature program based primarily on young adult literature. Novels were used for whole-class reading as well as for independent reading. The English program was later recognized as a National Council of Teachers of English Center of Excellence. In further recognition of the success of the program, Mowat students won eleven of the fifteen awards given by the Bay Language Arts Council.
However, with the appointment of a new principal in 1985 a political shift took place in the school. Censorship began to gain a foothold. A formal complaint was filed in April 1986 against two young adult books, I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier and About David by Susan Beth Pfeffer. Applying the policy used for reviewing library books, the school district officials removed the books until the complaint had been resolved.
At its August 1986 meeting the school board voted to adopt an instructional selection and review policy. As a result of merely counting vulgarities and sexual references while ignoring literary merit, Superintendent Hall banned such books and plays as Great Expectations, The Call of the Wild, and King Lear in the Bay County Schools. With Hall's announcement came the filing of a lawsuit by a total of forty-four parents, students, and teachers who sought the reversal of the defendants' actions and the restoration of the banned books.
After Hall's decision the town became known internationally as "The Town that Banned Shakespeare." This bad publicity and the lawsuit influenced the school board's future decisions. In May of 1987 the school board voted unanimously to approve the books and plays Hall had restricted. Additionally, an appeals procedure was added to the instructional selection and review policy.
Finally after nearly three years of negotiations both parties in the lawsuit reached an agreement. The board agreed to restore all of the banned or restricted books while making some amendments to the established book selection policy.
Pipkin was awarded the Courage Award in 1989 by the Courage Foundation for the anti-censorship struggle she waged at Mowat. But courage takes a human toll. In 1990 Pipkin resigned her teaching job because of constant stress.
In part two ReLeah Lent tells her story. In the spring of 1988, Lent became the sponsor of the student newspaper, Making Waves, at Mosley High School in Panama City, Florida. Her work with the students and the paper developed over time as she incorporated her beliefs in democracy and the integration of reading, writing, and thinking in the lives of her students. She recounts with glowing pride the intertwining growth and development of these basic principles among the students with the newspaper's evolution into award-winning status. It won a First Place International Award from Quill and Scroll, an honorary journalism society.
However, a new superintendent's election with the support of the leaders in the previous censorship campaign portended ill for intellectual freedom in the district. In 1997 the principal of Mosley High would not permit a gay and lesbian support group to run an ad announcing a meeting. Lent told him that she went outside the organization to discuss his decision with the editor-in-chief of the local paper. An infuriated principal removed her as the newspaper advisor the following school year. Lent saw his action as a form of censorship because he replaced her with someone who would not allow the students to control the content of their press.
Throughout the summer students, parents, and community members with the help of Pam Sutton, the lawyer in the Mowat book-banning case, organized support for Lent's return to the position of newspaper advisor. Articles, guest editorials, and letters supporting Lent appeared in the local newspaper. Individuals and groups met with school board members and the principal. The principal claimed he replaced Lent because he wanted the newspaper to go in a different direction. The school board refused to overturn his decision because the members felt they would be undermining the authority of a principal, an issue of primary importance.
In November a federal lawsuit was filed. Negotiations with school board attorneys did not succeed even though Lent offered to tender her resignation as newspaper sponsor if the school board agreed to accept student press guidelines.
In the spring of 1998 Lent finally accepted a financial settlement of $120,000. Agreeing to this offer was an agonizing concession for Lent whose issue was intellectual freedom not monetary gain. Her lawyers argued that if her case went to a conservative Supreme Court it would only create bad law. They finally convinced her that her acceptance of the financial settlement would be seen as a victory for intellectual freedom by principals, school boards, and teachers. She relented.
A year later Lent won the PEN/Newman's Own First Amendment Award for her work to defend freedom of expression in the classroom. She, like Pipkin, escaped the confines of censorship. Lent accepted a teaching position at a nearby high school with a principal who denounced censorship.
In part three, the authors conclude, "Power, not justice turns the wheels of education…" (p. 213). Thus, teachers are either reduced to following the dictates of those in power or of suffering greatly for their resistance. Underlying the two sides in the censorship battle, according to the authors, are different conceptions of the purpose of education: learning as inquiry versus learning as a transfer of information.
As we approach Banned Book Week in September, it is useful to read about the struggles of two teachers to preserve intellectual freedom in their schools. For those who are studying to be teachers, these stories may inform them of potential challenges. However, those readers who seek to understand the broader political and social forces affecting these local conflicts will need to search elsewhere. This book lacks the in-depth analysis needed to develop an understanding of the broader forces seeking control within the schools.