Across the country, students and teachers are heading back to school. Eager to reconnect, they are also ready to learn new concepts, discover unexpected insights, and be challenged by complex ideas.
But not everyone in American lecture halls or library stacks this fall will be allowed to learn and read freely. Due to recent bills and legislative efforts throughout the U.S., half our states censor the teaching of race and gender in public colleges and K-12 schools – especially any teaching that examines them in the context of our collective history. At the same time, books are being banned at the highest rate in our country since the American Library Association first began documenting those numbers. For students entering college, five times as many books are being challenged as when they started high school.
What will we sacrifice as a country by letting these bans stand? We cannot navigate our multicultural American society if we are operating from myth and stereotype instead of fact and shared experience – and its democratic workings slow when the education our students are taught is inaccurate and incomplete.
Book bans and educational censorship impoverish us all. Ultimately, they influence the decisions made in boardrooms and at business roundtables, school board meetings and community councils; how information is shaped and shared in tech, media, and entertainment; how we talk to our neighbors, friends, and fellow volunteers; what products are developed and what PTAs choose to prioritize; how our broader culture evolves; and, crucially, who gets to have a voice on the future of our beautifully dynamic and deeply complex American democracy.
They also impact how well we understand our collective past. The Mellon Foundation, where I work, funds higher education programs that strengthen humanities curricular development, train the next generation of academic leaders, and broaden access to the liberal arts so that our country will continue to have the tools to preserve, research, and explain our full history. These include programs that directly connect humanities coursework to civic engagement, provide mentorship and research support to burgeoning scholars who reflect the demographic transformation underway in the U.S., and make college classes and library books more accessible in American prisons.
At Mellon I also lead the Monuments Project, which aims to accurately reflect the American Story in our monuments and memorials, such as the recently created Emmet Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument in Mississippi. Through this work I’ve been engaged in conversations about the national reckoning over Confederate monuments.
I’ve learned that even though these monuments are now part of a familiar news story, many of us don’t know their full story. They are not, for example, historical artifacts built in 1865 at the conclusion of the American Civil War. Most actually went up generations after the war was fought. Some went up after 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of American schools; others in the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Act was passed. One was even re-dedicated in 2015 in Selma, AL, right after President Barack Obama went to the city to march with elderly civil rights workers.
Well into the 21st century, in places where Confederate soldiers never set foot, Confederate monuments have gone up in moments of hard-won racial progress. They are white supremacist tools of instruction – and the history they teach is not true.
Knowing the truth about our history is crucial, because without that knowledge we don’t know who we have been, who we are now, or – intrinsic to the strength and resilience of American democracy – who we could become. When the author Maggie Tokuda-Hall was asked earlier this year by Scholastic to remove references to racism from her picture book, Love in the Library, which recounts the relationship between her incarcerated Japanese American grandparents at the Minidoka internment camp during World War II, she refused to do so. In reflecting on what children lose if changes like those were made to her book, Tokuda-Hall told NPR, “I think they’re losing the opportunity to talk about the truth, to learn the truth, to discuss it. No substantive change for the better can be made without reconciliation with the truth.”
Her words remind me of the Japanese American poet Mitsuye Yamada, who was also incarcerated at Minidoka – one of 112,000 people of Japanese descent, nearly two-thirds of whom were American citizens, who were interned at remote camps throughout the United States. In her poem “Evacuation,” Yamada described her forcible removal to Minidoka by the U.S. government:
“As we boarded the bus
bags on both sides
(I had never packed
two bags before
on a vacation
the Seattle Times
so obediently I smiled
and the caption the next day
Note smiling faces
a lesson to Tokyo”
If we were only allowed access to the newspaper photograph referenced in the poem, we would not know the full history Yamada shares, nor the caption’s erroneous interpretation of her experience. There would be no “substantive change for the better.” There would be no “reconciliation with the truth.”
Are we willing to live without knowledge of the full, true history of our country?
The truth is worth fighting for – and we can all fight for it. Those in philanthropy or the private sector can fund programs in colleges, public lending spaces, and prisons that ensure expansive and unencumbered access to books, literacy, library and information resources, digital infrastructure, and original source materials. Those in government and education can strengthen academic freedom for teachers, scholars, and professors at public schools and institutions, nourishing the very fields of research and analysis that impart endangered information about our racial heritages, our gender identities, and our shared experience as many different people in one democratic society. Each of us can seek out and support the enduringly potent and wondrously manifold stories of this country by buying and reading banned books, including those by some of the most luminous authors in American literature, who reveal so much human insight through the written word. We can lean into the good, hard questions raised by disciplines like ethnic and gender studies, exploring the unique power and perspective of the multivocal American experience. We can push back against those working to bar our access to this rich and ever-expanding knowledge. Together, we can and we must challenge book bans and educational censorship.
If we want a fully informed and functional American democracy, we cannot let the enlightenment and empowerment of education be taken from us. We must be free: free to learn, free to read, and free to see – always – the clear truth of our collective history.
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