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We Are All Censors Now

by Jonathan Zimmerman - May 16, 2005

Do you favor censorship in the schools? Of course not. If you’re like most readers of this journal, you sneer at the very idea. “Censorship” conjures images of rabid Christian conservatives, snooping about school districts to remove Harry Potter or Catcher in the Rye. But you’re a good-hearted liberal, of course, a tolerant tribune of “free thought” and “open dialogue.” The censor is always the other guy, or so you like to think.

Do you favor censorship in the schools?

Of course not. If you’re like most readers of this journal, you sneer at the very idea. “Censorship” conjures images of rabid Christian conservatives, snooping about school districts to remove Harry Potter or Catcher in the Rye. But you’re a good-hearted liberal, of course, a tolerant tribune of “free thought” and “open dialogue.” The censor is always the other guy, or so you like to think.

Think again. For when it comes to education, everyone is a censor. We all want to privilege certain ideas and eliminate others, as well we should.

If you think you’re not a censor, go dig up the New York City high school curriculum for 1951. You’ll find a play by Harold Bates, The King’s English, set on the imaginary island of Karra Wanga in the South Seas. The island is ruled jointly by an American, Ripley O’Rannigan, and by a local cannibal, Kawa Koo. When an American boat shipwrecks on the island, Kawa announces that he and his men will eat all 20 survivors. After a plea from Ripley, however, Kawa agrees to allow him to save a single passenger.

Ripley decides to select the survivor who speaks the best English. But this solution does not sit well with the boat’s lone Jewish survivor, Perlheimer, who “talks with both hands” as he challenges Ripley:

PERLHEIMER: “Inklish? Vat for I speak Inklish? I read Yiddische papers. I talk Yiddish mit mein friends. I live by mein own people.”

RIPLEY: “You’re a poor sort of American . . . There are good Jews and bad ones, the former being typified by the merchant Nathan Strauss, and the latter by people like Perlheimer.”

PERLHEIMER: “I keep by mein own ways.”

RIPLEY: “You may have him, Kawa! America doesn’t want him. He’s indigestible."

Not surprisingly, African-American and Jewish parents objected to the play. Eventually, it was removed from the curriculum. So was Little Black Sambo, the ubiquitous elementary reader featuring child-like, happy-go-lucky slaves.

And I say: good riddance. If that makes me a censor, so be it.

The term “censor” dates to ancient Rome, which appointed state officials to count citizens--that is, to take the census--and to supervise public morals. According to Webster’s Dictionary, “to censor” means “to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable.”

Like it or not, schools still represent our chief vehicle for instilling public morals in our young. In a very real sense, then, the schools must censor:  they have to choose certain materials to teach and certain materials to suppress or delete, based upon the messages that these materials transmit. And some messages are so objectionable that we should delete them.

No, I’m not saying we should burn The King’s English or Little Black Sambo in some kind of anti-racist bonfire. They’re important parts of our history, and our children should have access to them--especially in school libraries. But we should not give these books our official imprimatur by including them in curricula, which would send the wrong message to our kids.

So spare me the moral posturing and grandstanding against “censorship.” The only interesting questions become: what should we censor? And who should decide?

Every year, remember, African-American parents object to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on the same grounds that earlier generations condemned The King’s English: it’s full of racial slurs and stereotypes. At last count, indeed, Huck Finn was the fifth most frequently challenged book in American schools and libraries.

Even more, those zany Christian conservatives object to Catcher in the Rye (and hundreds of other texts) for similar reasons: the book insults their distinct cultural sensibilities. In the 1960s and 1970s, the then-new Christian Right often argued that nobody should be exposed to these immoral books. Today, however, conservatives are more likely to take a multiculturalist tack. They have a “culture,” the argument goes, just like African-Americans and other minorities do; and if blacks get to strike The King’s English from the curriculum, why shouldn’t right-wing Christians get to remove Catcher in the Rye?

It’s a serious question, and it deserves a serious answer. Let me suggest a few general guidelines for what I might call (without contradiction) fair and equal censorship:


Context counts: To judge a piece of literature, we need to place it in its own time. Although many of the passages in Huck Finn offend contemporary ears, Twain wrote the 1885 novel as a critique of American race prejudice. That’s simply not the case for Little Black Sambo or The King’s English.


Literary merit counts: It’s a slippery concept, I know, but we can’t live without it. Just as the courts have ruled that books with “serious literary value” cannot be banned as obscene, so must schools try to identify--and retain--curricular materials that possess the same value. In 1913, Jewish parents in New York City asked their school board to remove Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice because the figure of Shylock embodied and perpetuated anti-Semitism. They were right about Shylock, of course, but wrong about censorship. Some works of art and literature are simply too significant--and too darned good--to be censored, even if they do insult a given population.


Distinguish between the school library and the school curriculum. The school curriculum is by nature coercive: when we decide on a book for the class, everyone has to read it. That’s obviously not true for the library, where kids get to choose what they read. So the burden for library censorship should be much higher than for curriculum censorship. In the curriculum, the question should be: is this book important or worthy enough that all of our children should know about it? The library question is a negative one: is the book so dangerous, graphic, or obscene that no child should see it? We need to keep these issues separate in our heads--and, most of all, in our schools.


Confess thine own sins. Even as they scoff at Christian conservatives for “censoring” the curriculum, liberals are engaged in the same thing. The best place to observe this process is in textbook production. Left-wing pressure groups urge publishers to delete pictures of women doing housework and of racial minorities living in poverty--both are “stereotypes,” you see--while the Right tries to eliminate passages about sexual health and evolution. It simply won’t do to contend that “our” side is revising or updating the books, while “their” side is censoring them. We’re both doing it, all the time.


Welcome public demands, even when you disagree with them. Among American intellectuals, it has become commonplace to bemoan the decline of civic engagement in American life. But you can’t decry Americans’ lack of interest in their public institutions--including their public schools--and then complain about the ignorant barbarians who are pounding at the superintendent’s gates. If you want civic engagement, you should encourage more censors to enter the arena--not fewer.

To quote Will Rogers, “We are all ignorant, only about different things.” And we are all censors, too, only about different things. The sooner we admit it, the sooner we can begin a real discussion about our real differences--and how we might find a way to accommodate all of them.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 16, 2005
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11869, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 6:15:30 AM

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About the Author
  • Jonathan Zimmerman
    New York University
    E-mail Author
    JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN is Professor of Education and History at the Steinhardt School of Education, New York University. He is the author of Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools?” (Harvard University Press).
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