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A Field Guide of Censors: Toward a Concept of Censorship in Public Schools

by Kenneth A. Strike - 1985

The author constructs two model theories about the phenomena of school censorship. The first he calls the conventional view, representing the view that seems characteristic of professional educators. The second, he calls the “censor’s” view. The purpose of these model positions is not to describe the viewpoints of any actual participants in any real disputes. Instead, the purpose is to understand the structure of the issue better.

Whatever censorship is, it is known to be a bad thing. This being so, in any debate about censorship it is strategically important to be sure that everyone knows who the censor is. It is your opponent. Generally, teachers, librarians, and educational administrators- those who decide what our children will read in school- have been quite successful in tagging those who object to their choices as censors and in avoiding the label for themselves. Thus, they have also been rather successful in winning arguments about censorship, at least when those arguments have been addressed to academics and others who are thoroughly imbued with ideologies of free speech and academic freedom. To succeed in tagging one’s opponent with the name censor is to succeed in bringing the collective weight of J. S. Mill, the First Amendment, the Supreme Court, and the liberal tradition crashing down on his head. In intellectual circles, few will survive such devastation.

Given this, it is perhaps worthwhile to pause and reflect on the conditions under which the label censor is properly ascribed.

A teacher wishes to remove a Kurt Vonnegut book from her reading list in order to make room for a play by Shakespeare.

A parent wishes to remove a Kurt Vonnegut book from the same reading list because he believes the book is anti-American.

A black parent wishes to remove Huckleberry Finn from the library because he believes it disparages blacks.

A black principal removes Huckleberry Finn from an elementary school library because, while he recognizes its literary worth, he has found that many black children suffer loss of self-esteem due to its characterization of blacks.

A school board refuses to give “scientific creationism” equal time with evolution because they believe it is unscientific.

A school board excludes the teaching of evolution because it represents godless humanism.

A women’s group protests the exclusive picturing of women in domestic roles in a district’s old math series.

A different women’s group protests the exclusion of women’s pictures in domestic roles in the district’s new math series.

Are any of these cases of censorship? Are all of them?

Is it really so obvious that when teachers or librarians select a book for children to read and decline to select others, they are not censors, but that parents or school board members who disagree with their choices are? I think that this is not at all obvious. Indeed, I shall question whether the word censor is a very useful term in educational debate. Perhaps it carries more emotional than cognitive freight, and perhaps it obscures some very important things that are at stake about how our children are educated. I shall proceed by constructing two model theories about the phenomena of school censorship. The first I shall call the conventional view, representing the view that seems characteristic of professional educators. The second, for want of a better name, I shall call the “censor’s” view. As should soon be apparent, I mean nothing pejorative here. The purpose of these model positions is not to describe the viewpoints of any actual participants in any real disputes. I have taken no surveys and conducted no interviews. Instead, the purpose is to understand the structure of the issue better.


Alan Glatthorn, writing in a collection of essays on censorship entitled Dealing with Censorship, provides a quotable version of the conventional view.

We are locked in a struggle over the fundamental principles of freedom and liberty. It is not simply the struggle to defend our professional freedom to choose books. It is the larger struggle to ensure that the public school classroom remains a forum for free inquiry. If angry parents can turn the public school into a closed system for inculcating their narrow vision, then surely, we are all in trouble.1

What are some of the assumptions of the conventional view? I shall suggest that there are at least five of which we should take note.

1. A “marketplace of ideas” promotes inquiry and growth. No less an authority than the Supreme Court2 has declared the schools to be a marketplace of ideas where truth is to be discovered out of a multitude of tongues.3 We should remind ourselves of what the central values of the marketplace of ideas are.

First and foremost is the view that rational inquiry takes place most effectively in an environment that permits consideration of alternative viewpoints and criticism and debate. No idea is sacrosanct, no theory beyond challenge. Ideas must prove their worth by being tested in the crucible of debate.

A second emphasis is that a marketplace of ideas promotes autonomy and personal growth. Educational environments that encourage diversity and discussion allow individuals to make their own choices, and the process of having to weigh options and make decisions promotes growth.

2. The values and practices of a marketplace of ideas are applicable to schools. The standard arguments for a marketplace of ideas tend to see the participants in the marketplace as adults discussing their affairs in a kind of unregulated intellectual free-for-all. Schools, however, are places where children study and occasionally learn a curriculum selected for them by adults. The standard view on censorship must assume that the values and practices of the marketplace of ideas are to some degree suitable to and applicable in such institutions.

3. The freedom of students takes precedence over the freedom of their parents or the collective wishes of members of the community. Conflicts about censorship are often conflicts between educators and parents or school board members about what children will and will not read or be taught. Teachers usually see themselves as defending the freedom of children, often against their own parents. The assumption must be that the freedom of the child is a value that takes precedence over the freedom of parents or other members of the community to determine what children will read.

4. The freedom of students is promoted by protecting the professional autonomy of educators. Protesting parents are usually protesting not only what their children are reading, but also the choices of teachers, librarians, and other educators about what their children will read or about what will be available for their children to read. The educator, faced with a protesting parent, must defend not only the child’s right to read, but his or her choice of reading material for that child. Thus, the standard view about censorship must claim that protecting the right of educators to choose educational materials for children is a central feature of a system that protects the freedom of children to explore diverse ideas and make up their own minds.

5. Censors will be seen as desiring to impose their values on the entire community. Those who protest what is being read will be perceived as attempting to do more than protect their own children from what they regard as harmful influences. They will be seen as attempting to make their moral views, their “narrow vision,” obligatory for everyone in the community.


It is more difficult to articulate a coherent view for the censors. They do not have available such formidable resources as the Supreme Court, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and J. S. Mill to formulate arguments for them. Nor are they well organized. Moreover, as with most outsiders, there is a tendency to argue anything that serves one’s purpose. Nevertheless, I believe that a coherent position in defense of “censorship” can be constructed. Its central feature is that it will see the conflicts between educators and parents over some piece of the curriculum not as a contest between the marketplace of ideas and censorship, but as conflicting views of what is educationally worthwhile. Teachers will not be seen as protecting the freedom of the child, but as using their power to impose their educational preferences on children against the wishes of parents. Some of the features of such a point of view can be expressed as follows.4

1. The central value to be served with respect to such disputes is that of pluralism. Pluralism will be understood as involving the right of parents and communities to transmit their distinctive values to their children without interference from others. Insofar as diversity is valued, what is valued is not vigorous discussion between people with opposing views. What will be valued is the existence of separate autonomous communities whose members are free to pursue their own values and to transmit them to their children without opposition. People who hold such a view are more likely to value freedom of conscience than a marketplace of ideas. The model of liberty is more likely to be freedom of religion, the right to hold and practice one’s beliefs without interference from others, than academic freedom or free speech, the right to advocate and discuss one’s views.

Pluralism is conceived here in such a way that it can be opposed to the notion of a marketplace of ideas. The emphasis is not on the consideration of diverse points of view or on free and open discussion. It is on the right of groups to the conditions for the maintenance of the integrity of the group and its culture. It is not unlikely that for some groups, culture maintenance may require protection from acquaintance with alternative viewpoints. Moreover, while it may be the case that the desire of the members of some groups to isolate themselves and their children from the marketplace of ideas of their larger society is unfortunate, it is important to be clear that that is not the paramount issue. Rather, the issue is their right to do so if they so choose, and the issue is the right of the society to use the schools for the forced liberation of their children from the “benighted’ views of their parents.

2. In conflict situations, parents will perceive educators as attempting to impose their view of what is educationally worthwhile over that of the parents. Many censors are likely to see arguments about a marketplace of ideas as nothing more than a subterfuge that allows educational professionals to impose their values on their children. They may see schools as promoting a distinctive point of view (perhaps, secular humanism), or they may argue that the teacher’s sense of a proper range of diversity contains material that is lacking in educational value or is genuinely harmful. In either case, they are likely to insist on their rights as parents to transmit their own values to their children without opposition from the schools.5

3. Parents’ rights take precedence over the free choice or autonomy of children. An insistence on the right of parents to transmit their values to their children will be seen as an important part of the defense of pluralism. An attempt by a state agency, including the schools, to interfere with the right of parents to govern the education of their children will be seen as an attack on pluralism. This will be the case even when the interference consists in presenting alternative viewpoints to the child and when it is justified in the name of the freedom of choice of the child.

4. The concept of a marketplace of ideas does not coherently apply to public schools. The curriculum of the public schools represents a set of choices about what is educationally worthwhile. The schools are not marketplaces of ideas where free and equal people with different viewpoints come to debate them. They are places where immature students come to learn what has been chosen for them to learn by adults. Conflicts over what children shall read are not, therefore, conflicts between a marketplace of ideas and censors, They are conflicts between people with differing ideas about what is educationally valuable and about who is to decide what is educationally valuable.

5. Claims on the part of educators that their autonomy of professional choice serves to protect the freedom of choice of students and the freedom of discussion of the classroom are a subterfuge employed by teachers to allow them to assert their claims about what is educationally worthwhile against those of parents and communities.

6. Parents and communities have a legitimate interest in the education of other people’s children because the education their children receive affects the overall educational climate of the school. Censors are often accused of wishing to impose their values on others. They may respond that if the schools succeed in transmitting “alien” or objectionable values to most students, those values will inevitably be transmitted to their children as well. Peer culture is a potent part of any child’s education. Given that they are compelled to send their children to school, and given that the education each child receives affects the education of all, they have a legitimate interest in the education other children receive.

7. It is the truth that makes men free, not diversity. Ideas have real consequences. They can liberate or destroy. It is improper to subject the young and immature to a range of ideas when they lack the maturity to choose wisely among them and when some of these ideas may be harmful or destructive. Let us simply tell them the truth.

Consider several observations on these positions.

First, both viewpoints make their case in terms of values that are important to liberal democratic societies. One group emphasizes autonomy and the marketplace of ideas. The other focuses on cultural pluralism and freedom of conscience. Neither group need reject the values of the other, although they will accept a different set of priorities among them. Thus it is far from clear that those who are tagged with the label censor are arguing from values that are foreign to American political traditions or to liberal values. Censors are not likely to see themselves as defending their right to indoctrinate their narrow vision and to suppress free and open discussion. They are likely to see themselves as asserting their right as free people to pursue their own values and to be liberated from the power of public institutions that are attempting to impose on their children values they do not share.

This difference in perception suggests that the root of the problem is not that we have in our midst persons who do not respect the liberty of others. It is rather that there are potential tensions and contradictions among the values of liberal democracies. Political philosophies are characteristically complex systems of ideas involving multiple principles and values demanding to be served. These principles can often be in tension and will need to be balanced or ordered in some way. For the most part, none of the protagonists in these disputes need reject the others’ values. It is sufficient that they order or balance them differently.

It may be worth noting that “liberals” in issues of censorship often seem more able to attend sympathetically to demands to include or remove books or alter curriculum materials when these demands are made by blacks or women than when they are made by conservatives or religious fundamentalists. Despite the notable differences in the content of the demands of these various groups, I would suggest that they have much in common. In each case, what is being demanded is often an instructional environment that is safe for members of the group, one in which they, their values, and their culture are affirmed or at least not demeaned. In each case, the demands can be argued in the name of pluralism. In each case the question that must be addressed is how we are to balance the demand for pluralism against the demand for a marketplace of ideas. And, in each case, one may ask whether the current state of affairs of the curriculum does not itself amount to the imposition of a viewpoint.

The second important observation is that we must be careful not to allow power to define censorship. The structure of any censorship dispute will involve one group of people who have the power to choose what will go into the library or the curriculum and another group of people who disagree with those choices. What is it that makes the second group the censors? It should be remembered that the choices of the first group involve not only the selection of some materials, but the rejection of others. Why is this not censorship? Indeed, arguably, it is only people with power who can be censors, since it is only they who can succeed in making choices that affect what others will read.

Presumably, those who make such choices concerning what will be available to children to read or study will respond that they are not censors because they make their choices in terms of sound educational principles concerning what is worth reading or studying. They do not simply seek to identify and exclude things they dislike. This, however, is not a satisfactory response. First, surely anyone who is in a position to choose about such matters does exclude material because it fails to meet their standards of educational worth. That they are doing the choosing does, of course, mean that their attention is focused on selection and the reasons for it, not on rejection. This does not mean that their rejection of material is any less real. The powerlessness of the censors, however, means that their attention will more likely be focused on what they object to than on what they would wish to see included. They are not, after all, asked to decide. They are merely presented with decisions and materials to which they must react. One is likely to hear from them only when they disagree.

The main reason the response is not satisfactory, however, is that the same response is available to the censors. They, too, may argue that their preferences concerning what children should or should not be given to read are based on sound educational principles. The problem is not that others have chosen on sound educational principles and that they are censors. The problem is that there is a dispute over educational goods. Those who choose and those who object to the choices simply disagree about what is educationally valuable. The question is not, therefore, about who is the censor. The question is which viewpoint about what is educationally worthwhile should be served. It may be that powerlessness focuses attention on the question of what violates one’s standards of educational worth rather than on what fulfills them. But why should that make protestors into censors?


Does the preceding argument show that censorship is not a useful concept to employ in thinking about disputes over what shall be read or included in school libraries? I believe that this is not yet the proper conclusion to draw. Rather, the argument thus far suggests two things. The first is that censorship should not be defined by power. That one party of a dispute has the authority to choose and the other party can only protest that choice does not, by itself, make the latter a censor. The second is that a viable concept of censorship must be defined in terms of the reasons for a choice or for a protest of a choice. The essential questions are not ones of power, but whether choices or their rejection are motivated by legitimate educational criteria and what is to count as legitimate educational criteria. In this section I shall explore a concept of censorship that is formulated in terms of intent rather than power. The question of whether censorship is a useful concept will turn on the success of this attempt. It should be noted that this strategy is similar in some respects to that taken by the Supreme Court in Pico v. Long Island Trees,6 the lead case on school censorship. While I shall not deal explicitly with this case or its argument, the viability of the case for a neutral theory of censorship will have some obvious implications for the philosophical reasonableness of the Court’s position.

The view I shall sketch represents an attempt to find a middle ground between the two views of censorship described above. It accepts the censor’s claim that power or powerlessness cannot define censorship. It will also attempt to reconsider the point of objections to censorship and to reaffirm the value of intellectual diversity and free inquiry in a way that does not uncritically assume that only those who protest choices can be censors. If this strategy is to be successful in persuading either group, it will be because their views are not radically incommensurable. That is, to a large extent, the liberals and the censors share common or at least highly intersecting values. They are more likely to disagree about the priorities among them or the details of their application than to reject the commitments of their opponents out of hand. This does not mean that agreement is easy. It does mean that meaningful discussion is possible.

Consider then the following two propositions, which will constitute the basis of such a neutral theory.

1. Any choice of educational material or any rejection of or opposition to such educational material based on or motivated by reasonable, appropriate, or legitimate educational criteria will not count as censorship.

2. Any choice of educational material or any rejection of or opposition to educational material will count as censorship if:

a. that material meets the sort of educational criteria required by number 1;

b. the opposition to or rejection of that material is motivated by the desire to restrict familiarity or inquiry to ideas or directions considered safe or permissible for consideration.

In short, censorship is rejection of valuable educational material motivated by fear of thought.

Note first that this view of what is to count as censorship is neutral with respect to questions of power. Either the person doing the selection or the person objecting to someone else’s choice can be the censor. Neither need be.

Second, the view assumes the existence of a class of legitimate grounds for either selecting or rejecting educational material. It recognizes that choice is inherent in schooling and focuses attention on the grounds for choice. If this view of censorship is to be capable of any coherent application, it must, therefore, be possible to discover what these legitimate grounds are and to distinguish them from illegitimate grounds. Moreover, if the view is to be of any use in resolving arguments, it must be possible to achieve sufficient agreement on these educational criteria so as to make discussion possible.

Third, the theory takes the concept of free inquiry seriously in that it recognizes the need for free and open discussion and debate between educationally viable options. It accepts reason and persuasion as legitimate grounds for beliefs and rejects indoctrination and coercion. It sees censorship as, at its heart, an attempt to establish truth by power instead of reason. Here, too, the cogency and usefulness of the view depends on our capacity to reasonably distinguish between educationally viable and nonviable options.

Before we begin to discuss the issues raised by this view of censorship, we should remind ourselves of its use. Its main value is to help us to understand what is at stake in disputes about curricula and the selection of educational material. In this context we have two choices. We can treat disputes as concerned with conflicting views about educational goods. Or we can treat them as disputes about intellectual freedom. Our ability to distinguish between these two kinds of disputes is important for several reasons. First, it tells us what sorts of concepts are relevant to the discussion. If we are discussing a question of educational goods, we will ask questions about what our purposes and goals ought to be, how we ought to order these goals and purposes, and how they can be most effectively pursued. We will discuss our educational values and practices on their merits. Is this course, book, curriculum, or subject matter better than that one? Does it have any value at all? Might it be harmful? Is it suitable to the age or educational needs of the child?

If, on the other hand, we believe that what is at stake is free inquiry and intellectual diversity, we will deal with the dispute by means of those concepts appropriate to this context. We will talk about the virtues of free discussion, the need to prevent people from imposing their values on one another, and the merits of a marketplace of ideas.

Second, how we represent the structure of the issue will have much to do with the process we use to settle it and the civility with which we treat our opponents. For the most part, people who disagree with us about educational values are people to be persuaded, reasoned with, and compromised with. Their concerns are legitimate even if possibly misguided. Even when we cannot achieve agreement on what is reasonable to do, we can use normal democratic processes (such as school board elections) to decide issues. And if we lose, we can be good citizens and accept our defeat graciously. Censors, however, are known to be the bad guys. They are to be resisted and kept as far away from participation in decisions as possible, and can be fed to lawyers, courts, and the ACLU with impunity. They disavow fundamental convictions about how to behave in a democratic society, and, thereby, delegitimate themselves. The word censor plays the same role in public discourse as terms such as fundamentalist, radical, bigot, or reactionary. It reminds us who it is that is beyond the bounds of reason and civility and may, therefore, be dismissed out of hand or treated with suitable contempt.

Can we develop these two aspects of a concept of censorship sufficiently to allow us to distinguish coherently cases of disagreement about educational goods from cases of real censorship?

The first and the central task to address is to see if we can identify plausible candidates for appropriate educational criteria. In order to make this task somewhat more finite, let us assume a context and see how it might be discussed. We can approach the problem by focusing attention on a “sample” of candidates for criteria of educational worth. Suppose that we are considering a high school English class and suppose further that the teacher has assigned two books, both of which have been objected to by parents.7 The first book is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and the second is Samuel Clemens’s Huckleberry Finn.

Objections to the collected works of Vonnegut usually assert that they are obscene, anti-Christian, anti-American, and lacking in literary worth, at least in comparison with other works that might be read. Objections to Huckleberry Finn usually claim that it presents a degrading picture of blacks. We may treat these as a representative sample of the kinds of claims that commonly appear in censorship cases.

Are these claims disagreements about what is educationally worthwhile, or attempts to restrict free thought? Let us consider three distinguishable issues.

First, there is an appeal to comparative literary worth. The difficulty here is that comparative literary worth is not a highly objective matter. Is Vonnegut devoid of literary merit? Probably not. Is Vonnegut better than Shakespeare? Surely not. But is Slaughterhouse Five better than Hamlet for mid-adolescents? The answer to that is not very clear. Much would turn on a judgment of the ability of this age group to appreciate Hamlet and on the appropriateness of the issues raised by Vonnegut for these students.

We should note, however, that such disputes about the comparative literary merit of Shakespeare and Vonnegut are disputes about educational worth. The kinds of considerations that are relevant to such disputes are our standards of literary worth and our opinions as to the maturity level and educational needs of students of a particular age and background. Unless the concepts of literary worth or maturity employed implicitly contain appeal to the notion that some ideas make the works containing them literarily worthless or that some thoughts ought not to be considered by the immature, discussions about them are not likely to raise problems about censorship. Reasonable people can, of course, disagree about such matters, but there is no reason to see their disagreement as involving some form of censorship, since there is no attempt involved to restrict the ideas that may be inquired into or thought about. Neither the parent nor the teacher who wishes to remove Vonnegut from the curriculum so that more attention can be paid to Shakespeare is reasonably viewed as a censor.

The argument that Huckleberry Finn contains material that is disparaging of blacks is less clearly a claim about its educational merits. It is reasonable to claim that the judgment that a work gratuitously disparages the members of some racial, cultural, or religious group makes an assessment relevant to judging its educational worth. Unfortunately, the operative word here is gratuitously. For it is likely that, in many cases where the content of a book is thought by someone to be disparaging, that content is not gratuitous to the point the work wishes to make. Disparaging or not, the characterization of Jim in Huckleberry Finn8 is integral to the viewpoint that Clemens wishes to develop in the book. To object to the book because of the characterization of Jim is to object to what the book wishes to say. In effect, it is to argue that the ideas of the book are sufficiently pernicious that children ought not to be exposed to them. That is to say, it is to attempt to censor the book.

There are, however, several additional points that need to be made here. First, it may be that, in many cases, the image presented in textbooks of minorities or women is gratuitous. If an elementary math text contains pictures presenting women in exclusively domestic roles or minorities in exclusively menial ones, that characterization is gratuitous to the point of the book, and to attempt to alter or oppose such content should not, therefore, be considered censorship.

Second, merely to identify something as a case of censorship need not end the discussion. Unless one is willing to say that there are never cases where censorship might be justified, it is merely to increase the burden of proof that must be undertaken in order to justify censorship. It is one thing to believe that censorship is a bad thing. It is quite another to believe that there are no cases where it might not be reasonably advocated for the sake of a greater good. Those who wish to regulate what children read in order to control the image presented of women, minorities, or, for that matter, fundamentalists may wish to argue that a commitment to pluralism or to equality transcends the normal inhibitions against censorship. That is, in effect, to argue that some ideas are sufficiently pernicious that they should be censored, at least so far as the education of children is concerned. It is not my purpose here to agree with such claims. I merely note that correctly labeling something censorship need not end the argument.

Finally, I shall shortly develop an argument to show that excluding some ideas from the curriculum because they are known not to be intellectually viable options (astrology, for example) ought not to count as censorship. It is possible that one might argue that that argument applies here.

The third issue to consider is the relevance of the claim that Vonnegut’s works are obscene. Let us grant that, in one sense, they are. One does not get very far in most of Vonnegut’s works without discovering words that are considered vulgar. (This is, of course, also true of Shakespeare.) Obscenity can be considered objectionable in two ways. First, if its use is gratuitous, its occurrence is evidence of lack of literary worth. Second, it is considered by many people to be, at best, in bad taste and, at worst, morally objectionable.

That a book lacks literary merit is, of course, an educationally relevant reason for excluding it from the curriculum. But here, as in the previous case, the operative term is gratuitous. Certainly in Vonnegut’s case, such obscenity as the books contain is very much integral to the work. It is difficult to separate it from the view that Vonnegut wishes to portray. Thus, it is difficult to respond to the obscenity without responding to the substance of Vonnegut’s viewpoint and difficult, therefore, to object to the obscenity without thereby attempting to censor the view.

A similar argument will serve for the view that obscenity is morally objectionable. What, exactly, is morally objectionable about it? Here, one’s account of the moral offensiveness of the work either will link the moral offensiveness to the overall point of the work or it will not. In the first case, to object to the book on moral grounds is to assert that the viewpoint expressed by the book is morally offensive. That is to assert that the viewpoint expressed ought not to be heard because of its content and is an attempt to censor the book. If, however, one sees the moral offensiveness of the obscenity as independent of the viewpoint of the work, one must hold that in addition to its being offensive, the obscenity is gratuitous. In this case, being morally offensive will turn out to be another dimension of the literary deficiencies of the book. The problem with this claim is not that it is necessarily wrong, or that it is not educationally relevant. The problem is that it is unlikely to be the case for those works that are likely to be serious matters of controversy in public schools.

Here, as in the previous case, one may accept the claim that what is being objected to is the moral viewpoint of the book, agree that to do so is censorship, and defend censorship. The case might be argued in terms of the value of pluralism. As public institutions with a captive audience, the schools must respect the values of the diverse groups they serve. That includes the right of people not to have their children exposed to values they regard as alien to their own. It is not my intent here to pass judgment on arguments that affirm the value of pluralism over that of a marketplace of ideas. It is important, however, to note that this conflict expresses a tension within liberal values. Moreover, it should not come as a surprise that pluralism is more likely to be emphasized by those who feel themselves to be minority groups in our society. Again, despite the differences between the content of their concerns, the structure of the views of religious and racial minorities is often similar in its preference for pluralism.

The final objection to these books is that they are un-American or un-Christian. Here it seems rather obvious that the objection should be treated as a case of censorship. What is asked for is that a point of view that is critical (or believed to be critical) of some cherished beliefs should not be made available to students for that reason. That is censorship. If it is to be defended, an argument will be required to show that promotion of a favorable view of America or Christianity is of sufficient importance to justify the censoring of views critical of them.

It will be helpful to discuss a different type of issue. Schools have recently faced demands to give something called “scientific creationism” equal time with evolution in biology. This demand is easily linked to values of tolerance and the marketplace of ideas. Why not teach evolution and creation and the evidence for each, and let students make up their own minds? Is that not what fairness and respect for free and open debate require? Is not the refusal to do so censorship?

The exclusion of creationism from schools is often argued on the grounds that creationism violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment9 and that creationism is not science, but religion. This distinction is, in turn, explicated in terms of the notion of verifiability or falsifiability.10 Scientific claims can be empirically verified or falsified, religious claims cannot. I want to suggest that these are not compelling reasons for its exclusion. Consider, for a moment, that Isaac Newton, in an attempt to ground the notion of absolute space, described space as the Divine censorium.11 God, it seems, had a place in Newtonian mechanics. This proposal was not overly popular among many Newtonians and was put to rest with the demise of absolute space at the hands of Einstein, who, incidentally, also had a habit of incorporating God (who, it seems, does not play dice with the universe) into his physics. The interesting question, however, is how we would respond had Newton’s view prevailed. It seems unimaginable that we should refuse to teach Newtonian mechanics in schools because it incorporated God into a theory of mechanics. Of course, creationists do more than incorporate God into a biological theory. Indeed, the content of scientific creationism as it has been mandated by two states and reviewed and found wanting by a federal court is virtually a paraphrase of the first few chapters of the book of Genesis.12 The point, however, is that this need not be the case. Certainly creationists can (and probably will) learn to formulate their views without gratuitous religious content. Should they do so, it is not clear why reference to God should be sufficient to disqualify their views. Suppose that God had, in fact, created the world a few thousand years ago and that the empirical evidence for such a recent creation was abundantly clear. Would we refuse to teach the truth about the origins of the universe in schools because it required reference to God? The thought seems absurd.13

Nor do I believe that we can exclude creationism because it is unverifiable or unfalsifiable. The claim that God created the universe within the last few thousand years is surely falsifiable to the extent and in the way that most scientific claims are falsifiable.14 It is not at all difficult to imagine what sort of evidence would count against it. Creationism is not inherently unscientific in this sense. Indeed, one of the more amusing aspects of the debate about scientific creationism is to observe scientists begin their discourses on the topic of creationism with claims to the effect that it is unfalsifiable and then proceed to provide empirical evidence that they believe falsifies it.

The reason that creationism does not belong in the biology curriculum is that it is known to be false as surely as anything in science is known to be false. It no longer provides a viable way to do or think about biology. The evidence is in on the topic. Creationism is not unfalsifiable. Instead, it is a failed research program.15 For someone to advocate creationism now is for that person to certify himself incompetent in biology. The reasons creationism should be excluded from the schools are the same reasons that exclude astrologers from astronomy departments. Indeed, they are the same reasons that giving a low grade to students who get math problems wrong is not an act of intellectual oppression.

The point of this argument is that, within the intellectual professions, tolerance does not require representation and a hearing for each and every opinion so long as there is someone who holds it. It is a violation of the norms of free inquiry to exclude a hearing to an idea merely because one disagrees with it. However, it is not a violation of these norms to exclude an idea that has been so badly defeated in free and open discussion that the very act of holding it marks the incompetence of its holder. Indeed, intellectual progress requires not only free and open debate, but also the ability to exclude ideas that have been fairly heard and found wanting.16

The same point can be made by claiming that the curriculum and content of academic subject matter is properly refereed. That is, it is properly subjected to a process of professional judgment and evaluation that is analogous to that used to evaluate scholarly papers or academic appointments. In such cases, people, their work, or their ideas are routinely denied an audience in academic settings on grounds of their competence and without hint of censorship. No community dedicated to the advancement or dissemination of knowledge can survive without such selection mechanisms. To lack them is to be overwhelmed by a cacophony of competing intellectual claims of unknown and unknowable worth. Indeed, to lack them is to be unable to engage in the process of collective thought and judgment that allows intellectual professions rather than individuals to evaluate the worth of ideas. To treat such processes as a form of censorship is essentially to claim that only individuals, but not groups, may have opinions or form judgments about the worth of ideas. It is, in short, to attack the very heart of the idea of an intellectual community.

The limits of this form of argument must be recognized. To employ it is to appeal to the judgment of a body of intellectual experts in order to justify exclusion of some idea from educational institutions. That an idea has been judged wanting by a suitable intellectual community is a reason for holding that it lacks educational worth. That it has been accepted by them is a reason for holding that it possesses educational worth. However, not every idea is the property of a body of experts. Biologists are, for example, entitled to an expert opinion about the merits of creationism versus evolution. However, they are not, as experts, entitled to an opinion about whether it is more important in teaching biology to focus on biochemistry or on ecology. Such questions raise policy issues that may have more to do with public values and current social needs than with the scientific content of biology. Biologists, as biologists, are not experts in such matters.

I have now sketched what I have characterized as a neutral concept of censorship. I have reviewed a representative sample of considerations typical of “censorship” cases and have produced a set of arguments that were intended to sort these considerations into two groups, a class of legitimate educational considerations and a class of “censorious” considerations. Before we ask whether this attempt has had any success, we ought to remind ourselves what it was supposed to accomplish. Three things are important. First, the view was supposed to define censorship in a way that was neutral to power. Second, the concept was supposed to allow us to distinguish decisions based on legitimate educational criteria from decisions based on the desire to exclude educationally valuable material on grounds that one disagrees with its content. It should be obvious that succeeding on the second task is the key to succeeding on the first. Third, the utility of being able to make these distinctions was not to settle all educational disagreements, but to allow us to understand what the disagreements are about. It is assumed that we treat people differently if we believe that they disagree with us about what is educationally worthwhile than we do if we believe that they are censors.

Have we been successful in describing a workable distinction between choices motivated by legitimate educational criteria and those motivated by censorious intent? To some extent the answer to the question will turn on what counts as success. It would be too much to expect of any such standards that they automatically settle any dispute or that they will be easy to apply in all cases. Indeed, these criteria will not be easy to apply. It is, for example, one thing to agree that gratuitous obscenity counts against the educational worth of a book. It is quite another to agree that a given book contains an unacceptable quantity of gratuitous obscenity. I would suggest as a more reasonable expectation for these distinctions that they provide a basis for discussion and that they make such discussions potentially fruitful. The point is not to get people to agree on all aspects of an educational program or philosophy. After all, in a free society it is permissible for people to disagree about what they want, including what they want in the education of their children. Instead, the point is to allow us to make reasonable judgments about whether an issue of censorship is involved.

I would suggest that the following two conditions must be met if this neutral view of censorship is to be of any use. First, people would have to have some sense of agreement at an abstract level with the kinds of criteria of educational worth I have discussed. That is, they would have to agree in principle that such things as literary worth or acceptance by an appropriate body of referees count as criteria of educational worth and that such things as gratuitous obscenity, racism, or rejection by suitable experts count against educational worth. Second, they would have to have some degree of common understanding of what these standards mean. Their views of the world cannot be so radically different, so incommensurable, that they systematically mean different things by literary worth, obscenity, or suitable expert.

I believe that the first of these standards is not overly problematic. In our society such standards of educational worth seem commonplace. I see little reason to believe that the ACLU and the Moral Majority would produce criteria that would differ in fundamental ways from these. The real issue is whether they could be commonly understood or coherently applied.

Why might this be a problem? The most interesting response is that the world views of the disputants are likely to be so different that they would systematically see the meaning of these criteria differently. For example, creationists may well grant that acceptance by relevant experts counts as a criterion of educational worth. They need not be inherently opposed to the concept of a referee. Nevertheless, they might wish to disagree as to who the relevant referees are. They may wish to argue that it is biblical scholars, not biologists, who are the relevant authorities. Similarly, if the concept of literary worth includes more than an author’s skill in playing with words, and includes also a judgment about the author’s ability to make perceptive and illuminating observations about the human condition, one’s world view will influence what counts as literary merit.

If our concepts of what counts as literary worth or expert judgment are sharply divergent, we cannot expect much agreement, not only about what counts as literary merit or expert judgment, but about what counts as censorship. Are the world views of those who are likely to be involved in censorship disputes, in fact, so divergent? A thesis much like this has been argued by George Hillocks concerning the textbook dispute in Kenawaha County, West Virginia.

While the protest involved emotionalism, racism, class struggle, and even assistance from various conservative groups, the evidence indicates that the protest derived its life from issues more basic than any of those interpretations suggests. It is a conflict between diametrically opposed beliefs about the nature of truth and human behavior. On one side stands the protesters’ unquestioning faith in revelation as the most important avenue to truth and guidance for human behavior. On the other stand the Western traditions of reason and empiricism which subject all knowledge, including what is attained through revelation, to what Descartes called systematic doubt. The protesters see many signs of this tradition, which they call “humanism ,” in the textbooks. For them, the conflict between “creeping humanism” and their own values is one of absolute, fundamental importance. Indeed, given the context of tax-supported schools and compulsory education, it may be that no resolution of the conflict is possible without basic changes either in educational goals or in the principles governing our democracy.17

Here the lines between world views are drawn in terms of the clash between a religious perspective emphasizing faith as a way of knowing versus the rationalist views of those who emphasize science and whose intellectual roots are in the Enlightenment rather than in traditional religion.

I believe that this analysis should be regarded with some suspicion. I would not SO quickly reject the relevance of class conflict. More importantly, the contrast between faith and reason is too sharply drawn. It misrepresents the Protestant theological tradition even in its Fundamentalist incarnation and, indeed, is something of a caricature of Fundamentalism. Nevertheless, it is important to ask what follows if it is true.

To grasp the significance of the question, we need to remind ourselves of the extent to which public schools express the values of Enlightenment liberalism. As a people and despite our educational disagreements, our sense of what schools are for is dominated by liberal notions of freedom, equality, and rationality mixed with more than healthy doses of capitalism.18 Our concern for censorship finds its place within this view. If we find within our society people whose view of reality is radically incommensurable with these commitments, how shall we treat them? To what extent are we entitled to compel them to send their children to schools constructed on a core of values and a view of the world radically incompatible with their own? If they resist, is it sufficient to label them censors, exclude them from the discussion of educational goods, and compel them to send their children to our schools? Such questions raise difficult problems about the meaning of pluralism in our society. However they are to be decided, it seems insufficient simply to treat them as cases of censorship.

On the other hand, if we do not assume that combatants in censorship cases are divided from one another in that they possess radically incommensurable views of the world, we should also be willing to grant that they will approach questions of educational worth with enough of a core of common meaning that fruitful discussion is possible. In this case, the neutral theory of censorship described above should be capable of coherent, if difficult, application.


The argument of this paper has been intended to show that cases of censorship concerning public schools may be more complex than educators often appear to believe. The varieties of complexity can be summarized in four points.

1. The issue of censorship may not always pit persons who accept basic liberal values against benighted illiberal folk who wish to make their views obligatory for all. It may, instead, reflect a tension within a liberal view between an emphasis on a marketplace of ideas and an emphasis on pluralism. Parties in censorship cases may accept one another’s values, but order them differently.

2. If censorship is to be a useful concept, it must be defined by intent, not power. Defining a concept of censorship that is useful depends on being able to distinguish legitimate disagreements about educational worth from attempts to exclude viable options because one disagrees with them. Making such a distinction, in turn, depends on having reasonable and agreed-upon criteria of educational worth.

3. It is possible to have such criteria of educational worth and to apply them coherently to issues so long as disputants do not approach educational debates with radically incommensurable world views.

4. Given people with genuinely incommensurable world views, larger issues than censorship are raised. The issue becomes one of how to apply the concept of pluralism to people who are radically alienated from the range of values given expression to by public schools.

Given the assumption that in the majority of cases protagonists in censorship cases will not have radically incommensurable viewpoints, the force of the foregoing arguments is to suggest that the label censor is often more harmful than helpful and that the reasonable course of educators is to include the censors in the debate about what is worth doing in schools.19 Indeed, one might observe that it is foreign to the liberal spirit, in the words of John Stuart Mill, to hold the concept of a marketplace of ideas “in the manner of a prejudice” and to use it uncritically to give one’s opponents a bad name and to exclude them from educational debate. Given the way of the world these days, we remaining liberals may wish to be remembered by our conservative foes as having demonstrated a degree of tolerance toward their ideas deserving of reciprocity.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 87 Number 2, 1985, p. 239-258
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 666, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 6:45:57 PM

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