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January 15, 2006

Censorship in the English Classroom

"Every burned book enlightens the world." ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Bonfires,” according to Ruth McClain of OCTELA, “were a very efficient form of censorship in an age when books were handwritten and existed in few copies . . .

. . . In a website for The Ohio Council of Teachers of English Language Arts [found here], McClain goes on to say that:

[t]oday, in an era of printing and mass markets, burning a book has been reduced to merely a shocking gesture. To be effective, censors have devised other methods of restricting access to publications and materials deemed offensive or dangerous.

Hello careful readers,

Is your class material censored? If you don’t work from a syllabus set in stone, do you still find that you do not have the “freedom” to present various examples of literature to your English language students because someone in the administration has put limits on your “choices?”

How many of you that teach English overseas remember the controversy over the Harry Potter series several years ago? Judy Blume, renowned author of adolescent classics like Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, discusses the hoopla “[i]n Minnesota, Michigan, New York, California and South Carolina [where] parents who feel the books promote interest in the occult have called for their removal from classrooms and school libraries.” The full New York Times article can be found here in issue #76 of “Censorship News Online.”

In a 1999 English Journal article [found here] entitled, “The Effects of Censorship on Experienced High School English Teachers,” scholar Jane Agee claims, “In recent years, censorship cases have escalated as teachers are asked to introduce more contemporary and culturally diverse texts.”

One type of censorship of English language teaching seems to be happening right beneath our noses. So-called “silent censorship,” according to Nancy McCracken of Kent State University, “happens behind the scenes and accomplishes its purpose away from the eyes and ears of the press and thus away from the aid of the national organizations that would help if they could.” In her article for The Alan Review entitled “The Censorship Connection,” [found here] she maintains that the textbook industry itself is behind the much of the madness. Joan Delfattore’s What Johnny Shouldn't Read, “offers the best current study of textbook censorship practices, including a disturbing wealth of examples of silent censorship.” Some of things McCracken and discovered via Delfattore were that lines from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet were purposefully omitted, references to primate sexual behavior in Dianne Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist and several other textual works had been highly edited.

Mark Twain once said, "In America - as elsewhere - free speech is confined to the dead." In line with this sentiment, it seems, I’m discovering online that English teachers outside of North America are also encountering this type of dilemma. Consider this November 2005 post from “Catherine” found here over on Teachers.net:

Censorship of English texts alive and well in Australia. Jane Smiley's Thousand Acres was removed from the syllabus here a few years back because of its references to child abuse and repressed memory syndrome. Gay rights groups have also criticised the lack of representation of positive gay characters in school texts.

As for myself, I’ve recently begun to assign Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books for my classes. If you haven’t read this yet, it is absolute must-read for anyone interested in human rights or in Nafisi’s ability to demonstrate the “relationship between life and literature.”

Wherever you teach, if you’ve encountered censorship of any sort in the practice of your classroom activities, please share your experiences with the readers of English-Blog. How have you dealt with it, what do you think should be done about it and what trends are we to expect in the coming years with regards to censorship and education, in general?

Until next time,


"The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame." ~ Oscar Wilde

Posted by lhobbs at January 15, 2006 03:20 PM

Readers' Comments:


Unfortunately, the word censorship, perhaps like the word awesome, has taken Orwellian twists into near meaninglessness.

For example, many people I know bemoan the "liberal media" and how it makes President Bush and his war look like a big mess of corruption and incompetence. And yet, where does one have to go to find a clear and consistent liberal voice? Certainly not on the network news, mainstream press or NPR.

And yet, there are clearly stories not being told - one big one is the burgeoning Iraq veteran's against the war movement - so is this elitist liberal media on stories like this?

For the most part, our Press is free from government control - but is certainly held hostage by its corporate sponsors - good luck getting any real news about McDonalds or GM in the mainstream Press. And any news on the nearly 14,000 severely wounded Americans courtesy of Iraq?

As Ezra Pound put it "Literature is news that stays news". Governments and corporations are nothing if not focused on their own preservation. Independent literature is always a threat to the Status Quo - and "censorship" becomes evermore subtle - consider, for example how corporate radio has hollowed out and trivialized music which, for centuries, has been the medium of protest and personal expression. I expect corporations to co-opt blogging and the Web soon as well. But we the people will always find new ways to express emerging thoughts and cultural identities.


Posted by: Morf at January 16, 2006 05:44 PM

Note from Lee:

All very good points Morf, thanks for those insightful comments. Like everyday "discriminating" decision making, most of us are certainly guilty of censoring our own speech every day for various reasons (but hopefully not our own thoughts, yet).

Like you, another poster recently referenced the concept of "co-opting," his suggestion was how some Britons are irritated at the U.S's co-optation of the English Language. I often ponder this political concept in the ways that Gerald Graff has framed it: I think I'll design another entry exclusively on co-opting in the English classroom. Maybe you'll join me in that discussion as well!

Posted by: Lee at January 16, 2006 05:57 PM


I don't think corporations will manage to co-opt blogging simply because of numbers. It's so vast, meaning for every damned Coca-Cola blog out there, there will be fifty thousand others. There are millions of them already, even now. And since blogs cater to interest groups -- butterfly collectors, SF novel fans, 70s psychedelic art, photos of New York -- it's going to be pretty hard to infiltrate. Unlike on TV, nothing can be forced upon a blog reader except visa the hosting service (for the free blog services). So at worst you may get sidebar ads on the blogs of people too cheap to pay for their own hosting. (I've been that person as well, it's not a judgment.) But I think there's no way they'll infiltrate content, not effectively, anyway. What, is Coca-Cola going to start funding LanguageHat? Why? And how?

Ezra! I've been reading the old nutter lately. Heavy heavy heavy, but funny too.


Posted by: gord at January 16, 2006 06:24 PM


So you are looking for censorship. Try the Middle East. I was once chastised for not using a marker to blacken out the legs of American Tennis Player Chris Evert. Whole course are written without interaction between men and women. All of this happens while students in the back of the room are looking at Porno on their Cell Phones.

Instead of getting your shorts in a wad just tell the students, “This is a censored version.” If they want the truth, they’ll go and find it. It’s not worth losing sleep, driving up your blood pressure or committing Suicide over.

I can’t be the only person who has heard of “Graded Readers.” This, in itself, is a form of Censorship. Who gets to decide what is worth censoring?

Everybody wants to get their version before the eyeballs. If your version didn’t get picked up, well…. Business is Business. You got outfoxed. The Publisher doesn’t care either way. He sells copies of both versions.


Posted by: Gary Harwell at January 16, 2006 07:31 PM


I use whatever I want to use. If someone has a problem with it, they can talk to me in private. I am a conservative in an ocean of liberal educators!


Posted by: June Narber at January 16, 2006 11:29 PM

Note from Lee:

June, that's great but what if you're a liberal in a sea of conservatives? Or, if you're a moderate in a sea of liberals and conservatives? A libertarian or green in a bay of whigs and tories? Believe it or not, it's sometimes the progressive concepts that actually get censored/banned by the classroom "managers" rather than the traditional ones (see the posts about Saudi Arabia on http://www.esl-jobs-forum.com for instance).

More importantly, what if one's job is on the line? Personal responsibility or not, my guess is that the common person simply doesn't have the willingness to accept the potentially dire consequences of resisting the institution by themselves (even more so,perhaps, when that person is a "guest" in a country foreign to them).

Posted by: Lee at January 16, 2006 11:41 PM


I work in China which is heavily censored. When we watch the television news from Hong Kong it is not uncommon for the screen to suddenly go blank or for some public service commercials to some on for 10 seconds to a couple minutes to "protect" us from some unseemly news. Even more distressing is the concern that the public not be panicked so we are often protected from news about SARS or Bird Flu. This attitude is something I really don't like.

I have four small children. There are a lot of things I don't want my children exposed to and I will even be so politically incorrect and old fashioned to put Harry Potter on that list. And while kids around the world were thanking Santa for their Harry Potter book or Harry Potter toy my kids thanked Santa for nothing because they don't believe in Santa.


Posted by: dave kees at January 17, 2006 12:03 AM


By one of those unlikely coincidences, I heard a song I have not heard in many years that has a relevant set of lyrics. It comes from the song "The Ostrich" by Steppenwolf...

"You're free to speak your mind my friend
As long as you agree with me
Don't criticize the father land
Or those who shape your destiny
'Cause if you do
You'll lose your job your mind and all the friends you knew
We'll send out all our boys in blue
They'll find a way to silence you"

I wish censorship was always as clear and clumsy as the Chinese government currently handles it. American/Western cultural censorship is far more incessant and embedded in our culture and attitudes.

CS Lewis (author of the Narnia books) used to say that we should read at least one old book for every contemporary book. His point was that every era has its biases - which might be compensated by the biases and blind spots of other eras. I, for one, find Shakespeare and the Bible invigorating.

Or, on another front, compare Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughn with Britany Spears. Sigh....

Or try finding an out of print book at your local Walmart or Borders...

But this is cultural censorship which does not have a political agenda. Or does it?

As Wendell Berry put it "human hope may always have resided in our ability, in time of need, to return to our cultural landmarks and reorient ourselves".

Last week NPR had a segment on All Things Considered where they revealed that a very tiny percent of music recorded before 1965 is available in any format today.

We have a generation that has grown up with the idea that the music of the 1950s was Elvis, Doowop & girl groups. It was far richer and deeper, yet it has become trivialized and we, as a culture, seem to have lost our bearings, as Wendell Berry implies, because we have forgotten who we are and where we have come from.

And isn't that what censorship is really all about?


Posted by: Morf at January 18, 2006 12:33 AM

Greetings, Lee Hobbs,

Just to register a vote, but I may be in the minority. No one censors what I use at my school. We have no censorship problems at our school in Beijing.

Robert H. Toomey
Director of Education @ REC in Beijing

Posted by: Robert at January 18, 2006 09:39 AM


Back in 1999 I was living in Beijing and teaching for a university there. I had a side job as a radio host on CRI (China Radio International). I asked the program director for some clarification about the format. She said "We don't play rock & roll. The government hates rock & roll".

Hmmmm......is that censorship or merely a suggestion?


Posted by: Morf at January 19, 2006 10:27 AM


This may not count as deliberate censorship (but then again, it might).

At any rate, this couldn't be absolutely historically accurate, could it?

1 Go to http://www.google.com/
2. Type in "French military victories".
3. Instead of hitting "Search" click on "I'm feeling Lucky"
4. Tell your friends before the people at Google fix it......................


Note from Lee:

That's absolutely fantastic Morf! LOL. Did you discover that yourself?

Posted by: Morf at January 22, 2006 11:55 AM


Actually I have to confess that I needed a little push to Google "French Military victories" - but I did get it from one of my anonymous sources. But, as you might be able to tell, I have ample material for an infinity of rants & raves... ;-)


Posted by: Morf at January 23, 2006 12:48 AM


"To be effective, censors have devised other methods of restricting access to publications and materials deemed offensive or dangerous."

Much to my amazement, this topic seems to have generated very little passion lately. To refer to the quote above, one that initiated this discussion (at the top of the page) it is the "other methods" that should strike terror into hearts of any of us interested in base literacy.

The core "other method" is self-censorship (see http://www.alternet.org/columnists/story/8481/) for both a recent article and a pungent essay by George Orwell).

If one works in a culture of blatant censorship (China or much of the Middle East for example) it is fairly easy - once one knows the rules - to teach "freely" and without interference.

However, one cannot be too careful - especially if you are using American pop culture as a reference.

But, (gasp!) there is even subtle (and pervasive)censorship in America. In a sense, it is much like the clumsy censorship we see in other countries (though, if you have travelled outside the USA much, they think our censorship is blatant and clumsy as well).

A few examples; yes, of course the government cannot "control" blogging - but the government can certainly keep incriminating information (about the 9/11 attacks, or Florida voter problems in the 2000 election for example) from the mainstream press. Or, even more extreme, the government has done a great job of trivializing the "liberal" press - consider this:

"The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787.

Wendell Berry has a great quote "The mind that is not baffled is not working".

My bias is similar. If you don't come up against censorship, what kind of literacy are you promoting?

Is anyone familiar with Paulo Friere? Saul Alinsky? Ivan Illich?

Is it just me, or could it be that teaching English has become locked into a predictable (and suffocating) comfort zone?

Literacy should be inherently liberating and empowering - in fact,what could be more empowering (on a personal level) than linguistic mastery?

You are probably familiar with the story of the frog in the pan; if you put a live frog in a pan of cold water, and warm the water slowly to a boil, the frog will not leap out, but will be cooked to death. Just so, we in America, are seeing our basic constitutional rights slowly and steadily eroding.

As long as we have a steady chorus glibly chanting "I'm not having a problem. I don't have anything to hide." the erosion will continue.

The lack of outrage about government spying on US citizens is a sad indicator of how much control, censorship and interference we are willing to tolerate.

I love America - but I love it as "the land of the free and the home of the brave". I have no home when complacency, compromise and cowardice are seemingly everywhere...

For a far more thoughtful analysis of my concerns regarding the blatant hypocrisy of our era, look up "Citizenship Papers" by Wendell Berry. Yes, it's at Amazon.


Posted by: Morf at January 23, 2006 05:28 PM


Much to my amazement, no one has joined this discussion on censorship since the blow up about the Islam related cartoons published originally by a local journal in Denmark...

The reality is that events like these will happen - and their repercussions will echo through every classroom, market and workplace.

Students will want to know how you, a foreigner, take a stand in these volatile situations. You will still need to go to markets, take taxis and be in public - always identified as a foreigner.

If nothing else, the intensity of the foreign classroom will be increased. Threats and chaos can become likely - and unpredictable.

I was in China in a time like this and, even though I registered with the US Embassy, there was little they could do.

As a teacher though, even though the natural instinct is to hide out (or even leave in panic - as many did in my situation) this is a unforgettable "teachable moment". Terms (and emotions)will emerge that may not later and everything is far more vivid and perhaps relevant - as I was teaching English in China during the "US led NATO" attacks on the Chinese embassy in Sarajevo in 1999, there was nothing clearer than the necessity on the part of the Chinese - even if they hated America at the moment - to be able to understand the language and culture of this people who could affect them from so far away.

The Muslims who are reacting so viscerally to these cartoons are acting violently because they have no other voice. That is our business - to allow and equip them to voice their discontent in a civil and perhaps even constructive manner.

To me, that is the greatest gift the West can give the world.

Our prayers and thoughts should also be with those ESL teachers in the Moslem world right now...


Posted by: Morf at February 7, 2006 12:01 PM

Note from Lee:

Morf, thanks for those timely comments; on at least a few of them, you couldn't have hit the nail on the head any more accurately.

There was an outcry at my own university recently with letters to the editor and the Islamic Students Organization(s) handing out educational flyers about their religion. In fact, this is the "type" of reaction I'd prefer to see: letters to the editor and flyers being distributed.

Calls for boycotts are one thing, and even justifiable. Burning down private property because one is offended is quite another. But, that's my opinion.

Obviously, this really isn't the forum to carry out the partculars of the current event you are referring to but Patricia Dean, over on ESL-School has recently brought up the issue on her blog. Have a look at what she's had to day in her article, "Humor in the Classroom" over HERE.

Posted by: Lee at February 7, 2006 01:20 PM

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