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How the new banned books panic fits into America’s history of school censorship

What’s at stake? Who gets to control the story of America.

A display of banned or censored books at Books Inc., an independent bookstore in Alameda, California, on October 16, 2021.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

It seems as though every few years, a new wave of panic sweeps across America about the books being taught in schools. They are too conservative, or too liberal; they’re being suppressed, or they’re dangerous; they’re pushing an agenda; attention must be paid. This winter sees America in the grips of the latest version of this story, with conservative-driven school book bannings heating up across the country. And experts say there’s a special virulence to this particular wave.

In Tennessee, a school board yanked Art Spiegelman’s graphic Holocaust memoir Maus from the eighth grade curriculum. Last fall, a Texas legislator launched an investigation into 850 books he argued “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex,” including The Legal Atlas of the United States and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” In December, a Pennsylvania school district removed the LGBTQ classic Heather Has Two Mommies from school libraries.

“There’s definitely a major upsurge” in school book bannings, says Suzanne Nossel, CEO of the free speech organization PEN America. “Normally we hear about a few a year. We would write a letter to the school board or the library asking that the book be restored, and very often that would happen.”

In contrast, Nossel says, this year she finds herself hearing from different authors by the day about their books being banned. And the bans, too, are much more forceful than they’ve been before. “Some are an individual school board deciding to pull something from a curriculum or take it out of the library,” she says. “But there are also much more sweeping pieces of legislation that are being introduced that purport to ban whole categories of books. And that’s definitely something new.”

While the extremes to which the most recent book bannings go are new, the pattern they follow is not. Adam Laats, a historian who studies the history of American education, sees our current trend of banned books as being rooted in a backlash that emerged in the US in the 20th century. That backlash, he says, was against “a specific kind of content, seen as teaching children, especially white children, that there’s something wrong with America.”

Looking at the school book bannings of the 1930s against the bannings of the 2020s can show us how history repeats itself — even when we attempt to bury our history.

“Was this country founded on liberty? This is a fundamental question.”

In the 1920s, Harold Rugg, a former civil engineer turned educational reformer, put together a highly respected line of social science textbooks. “Lively and readable, they are the most popular books of their kind, have sold some 2,000,000 copies, are used in 4,000 U. S. schools,” Time magazine reported in 1940. It added ominously: “But recently the heat has been turned on.”

“They were intended to be a more progressive take on American society,” Laats says. “The banning of those books is almost creepily familiar compared to today.”

Rugg’s textbooks brought a Depression-era sense of class consciousness to their account of American history. They asked pointed questions about how class inequality persisted so sternly across the US, and whether America really was, as advertised, the land of opportunity.

For some objectors, these were questions no one had any business asking America’s children: They were un-American, subversive, and potentially Communist. As a jingoistic patriotism spread across the country in the lead-up to World War II, school boards, facing a wave of anti-Rugg sentiment, banned and even burned copies of the textbooks.

“They went from being one of the most commonly used books in schools to becoming unfindable,” says Laats.

Rugg’s class-conscious American history didn’t emerge all on its own. It was part of a larger shift in the way the country was beginning to think about itself, says education historian Jonathan Zimmerman.

“In the early 20th century, the history profession, well, it professionalized,” says Zimmerman. “People got PhDs, they went to Germany, they learned how to do archival research. And they started to ask some different and hard questions. If the American Revolution is a fight for freedom, why are there 4 million enslaved people? Why would a third of white people be Tories and go to Canada? Some of that critique started to get into textbooks, and there was this huge backlash.”

The challenges to books that questioned America’s narrative of ideological innocence and purity didn’t only come from reactionary WASPs. “German Americans, Polish Americans, Jewish Americans, and African Americans, they are the ones that kept this out,” says Zimmerman. Groups that were in the process of clawing their way into being included in the American founding myth, after all, had a vested interest in keeping that myth going, the better to access the social capital that came with it.

“If you diminish the revolution, in their minds, you’re diminishing their respective contributions to it,” says Zimmerman.

By and large, those groups were successful. Over the course of the 20th century, the great founding myth of America has found room to include and celebrate the contributions of all sorts of groups — not just the founders, but also immigrants and women and foreign allies and people of color. But Zimmerman argues that this inclusion has by and large happened uncritically. “You put all these new groups into the story, but the title of the book is still Quest for Liberty: Rise of the American Nation,” he says.

Zimmerman argues that the most recent slew of conservative book bans is responding to a real change in the way American history is taught. That change was most famously codified by The 1619 Project, a New York Times essay series spearheaded by Nikole Hannah-Jones that reframes the American story as one beginning in 1619, when the first slave ships came to America. And this new narrative, like Ruggs’s book before it, challenges a heroic narrative of liberty and freedom in which anyone might want to be included.

“The 1619 Project is not a demand for inclusion. It isn’t,” says Zimmerman. “I mean, it’s not against inclusion, of course; those people want inclusion, but that’s not the point. It says, Okay, when we do start including, what happens to that big story? Is it a quest for liberty? Was this country founded on liberty? This is a fundamental question.”

“With the 1619 Project,” says Laats, “the core of the controversy is roughly: Is history the celebration of the founding fathers? Or is history a celebration of a broader root of freedom fighters, especially including enslaved people and Indigenous people as the true freedom fighters?” The question at stake is, Laats argues: Who are we as Americans?

“A co-option of the winning terms by the losing side”

One of the oddities of this recent round of book bannings is that it comes just after a long, outraged news cycle of conservatives arguing that the left had become too censorious, with calls to remove classics like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from school curricula and Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name stripped from a children’s literature award. This conversation arguably reached its peak just last year when publishers faced furious backlash from the right after sending two Dr. Seuss books out of print because of their racist imagery.

“The cancel culture is canceling Dr. Seuss,” declared Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade in March 2021.

The disconnect between last year’s outrage and this year’s is striking.

“If you don’t like cancel culture, so-called; if you don’t like Twitter mobs; if you don’t like protesters on campus who reject conservative speakers; that’s one thing,” says PEN’s Nossel. “But to respond to that with legislative bans on curriculum with prohibitions on certain books and ideas in the classroom is to introduce a cure that’s far worse than any disease. If you put threats to free speech in a hierarchy, there’s just no question that legislative bans based on viewpoint and ideology are at the top of the list.”

Laats argues that this sort of abrupt about-face from the right, too, is part of a larger historical pattern.

“The 20th-century pattern is pretty clear, if you take the 100-year perspective,” Laats says. “There has been progress on racial issues. It might feel depressingly stuck, but if you compare it to 1922 or even 1962, there has been progress. Same with LGBTQ rights. The difference is enormous. And with every stage of this broadening of who is considered a true American, there’s been a co-option of the winning terms by the losing side.” The anti-abortion movement is met by the pro-abortion movement; the LGBTQ rights movement on the left is met with claims of religious persecution from the right.

Laats points to Dinesh D’Souza and William F. Buckley as “masters” of this strategy. “It’s this style of conservatism that is intimately familiar with more progressive attitudes in society, in a way that more progressive pundits tend not to be as familiar with conservative ideas,” he says. “Because progressive ideas — though it might not feel like it, especially not for the last presidency — progressive ideas have become more and more dominant.”

Zimmerman and Nossel both say that conservatives’ success at banning books from schools should demonstrate that the left had become too willing to censor over the past decade.

“What I worry about is that free speech is losing its moorings on both the left and the right,” says Nossel.

“I‘m not equating the two, because this has the teeth of law, what we’re talking about now,” says Zimmerman. “A state legislature passing laws that you can’t make kids feel uncomfortable is different from Dr. Seuss getting a couple books taken off the internet.” But, he adds, there is enough of a continuity between the two cases on principle that he feels the left has put itself in a difficult strategic position. “You cannot protect Beloved if you’re purging Huck Finn,” he says.

Zimmerman says he still thinks it’s reasonable for citizens to respond to the books that are taught in schools, and even to protest them in certain cases.

“In the 1960s, there were history textbooks in this country, including in the North, that still described slavery as a mostly beneficent institution devised by benevolent white people to civilize savage Africans,” says Zimmerman. “You know why it changed? Because the NAACP and the Urban League created textbook committees that went into school boards and demanded that racist textbooks not be used.”

Zimmerman suggests that objecting to a book because of its potential to harm students, which is a subjective measure, is less effective than objecting to a book because of its untruthfulness. “Of course [the textbook committees] said the books were racist, because they were,” he says. “But they also said that they were false, which they were. To me, that’s a much more appropriate line of argument in these discussions.”

Laats argues that no matter what strategy liberals take, it’s unlikely people will stop arguing about the books we use in schools anytime soon.

“Whoever gets to control what kids are reading gets to control the definition of, quote-unquote, the real America,” he says. “That resonates with a lot of people.”

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