Painted Windows, Distorted Mirrors: How Banning Books ‘Sterilizes’ Curriculums

To meet the demand of a modern world, we need to be expanding our students’ perspectives and engaging them in rich dialogue, critical thinking and global perspectives.

Painted windows on a schoolhouse. (Image created by author, Eric J. Moore, Ph.D.)

Ms. Classroom wants to hear from educators and students being impacted by legislation attacking public education, higher education, gender, race and sexuality studies, activism and social justice in education, and diversity, equity and inclusion programs for our series, ‘Banned! Voices from the Classroom.’ Submit pitches and/or op-eds and reflections (between 500-800 words) to Ms. contributing editor Aviva Dove-Viebahn at Posts will be accepted on a rolling basis.

In my mid-20s, I went to teach literature and philosophy at an international school in Indonesia. Initially, I taught the same books I had taught in the States—books almost exclusively by white British and American men, set in places, histories and cultures of which most of my learners had no knowledge. Toward the end of my first year there, a student asked: Why don’t Indonesian people write literature?

Oh! Oh.

The next year, we opened the curriculum with Indonesian literature: Andrea Hirata’s The Rainbow Troops. We learned about Indonesian social issues and opportunities as context together. Rather than discussing the U.S. Great Depression of 1929, we discussed ongoing strip mining and child trafficking on an island less than 100 miles away from where we sat. Then we broadened our scope. We replaced The Great Gatsby with the Columbian author Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold. We shelved Lord of the Flies for Indian activist Arundhati Roy’s visceral and challenging The God of Small Things

Our library shifted from one narrowly centering my culture, to one of windows and mirrors for the students in my classroom—windows when we chose works from countries that none of us belonged to or knew much about, mirrors when we selected works that showcased the brilliance of artists from the students’ own countries and cultures.

Together we explored, inquired, wondered and charted our way through these works. We debated, offered different perspectives and engaged in inquiry. We learned together about the texts, each other and ourselves.

The power of “window and mirror” books in collective hands of learners is in their capacity to guide our minds and attachments to cultures, ideas and places we would otherwise never experience and to also shine a light on one’s own experiences. 

New Perspectives Create Better Students and People

In 2012, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine published Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century. This important work collected and organized what we know about learning. It also emphasized the need for so-called 21st century skills, using this as context to frame recommendations for how schools can prepare the next generations of citizens, employees and leaders.

National Research Council. 2012. Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century.

In this work, the editors identify overlapping domains of competence including cognitive (e.g., critical thinking, information literacy, creativity), intrapersonal (e.g., intellectual openness, initiative, appreciation for diversity), and interpersonal competencies (e.g., collaboration, responsibility, conflict resolution).

When I read this publication as a doctoral student, I felt affirmed. I knew that the changes I had made with my students meant they had the opportunity to wrestle with other perspectives, engage in critical thinking, appreciate diversity, resolve conflicts and otherwise develop the skills they needed. They would be better prepared for the world they were inheriting—and so was I.

Now I live in Florida.

A Moms For Liberty meeting in Vero Beach, Fla., on Oct. 16, 2022. (Giorgio Viera / AFP via Getty Images)

Florida leads the nation in banned books in public schools. My home of Clay County accounts for a third of Florida’s total number of banned books. This is made possible by a series of vague laws touted as “parent empowerment” that require “transparency” of classroom materials. They allow any parent to instigate a challenge to any book (curricular, library or on classroom bookshelves).

The effect has been to allow groups like Moms for Liberty or No Left Turn in Education, explicitly political groups with ties to the far-right, to remove books from the hands of teachers and students. To be clear: As a parent, I do not feel empowered. Our students (including my children) are not being protected; rather, they are being irrecoverably hurt.

In Florida and elsewhere, windows are being painted over. Mirrors are being distorted to only reflect a select few demographic groups back at themselves, presenting them as taller and broader shouldered than the others in the school funhouse. Students are being robbed of the opportunity to develop the skills needed in the 21st century. Critical thinking, intellectual openness, appreciation of diversity, collaboration and conflict resolution all become less and less necessary the more sterilized and sanitized our curriculum and libraries become. 

Dystopian Literature Turned Reality

In George Orwell’s 1984, the fictitious language of Newspeak is used to control thinking. The character O’Brien—an agent of the totalitarian regime—gushes to Winston Smith, the protagonist, about how it works: 

“‘Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?’ Winston did know that, of course. He smiled, sympathetically he hoped, not trusting himself to speak. ‘Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?'”

To meet the demand of a modern world, we need to be expanding our students’ perspectives and engaging them in rich dialogue, critical thinking and global perspectives. Our children need opportunities to share potent books in community with peers and to learn to discuss challenging topics. If we parents are empowered, we ought to use our power to enable our children, not to narrow their perspectives.

In Ron DeSantis’ Florida we hear echoes of O’Brien: ‘Do you know that Florida’s school libraries get smaller every year? Don’t you see that the whole aim is to narrow the range of thought?’

I do know that, of course—but I must trust myself to speak.

Up next:

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Eric J. Moore, PhD is a career-long educator having taught in K-12 and higher education in the U.S., Indonesia and Korea. He currently serves as a learning design and technology director at a pediatric research hospital in Baltimore, Md. Views are his own.