Earlier this month, the The American Library Association has released a list of the “Top 10 Banned Books” of 2021. to mark an unprecedented increase in attempts to remove books from school curricula in the United States. The list included hit titles such as Juno Dawson’s ‘This Book is Gay’ and Angie Thomas’ ‘The Hate U Give’, which were criticized for, respectively, ‘providing sex education and LGBTQIA+ content’ and to promote an “anti-police message.
Book banning is not a new phenomenon. Adam Laats, an American education historian, told Vox that when it comes to book bans, “history repeats itself”. Since the turn of the 20th century, there have been regular waves of outrage against a “specific type of content, seen as teaching children, especially white children, that there is something wrong with the ‘America,” he noted.
Yet the latest wave of book bans appears to be more intense than those that preceded it. According to the American Library Association, 2021 saw the most challenges to books in any given year since the organization began tracking this data in 2000.
These challenges have arisen all over the United States and from all political walks of life. Many know Texas State Representative Matt Krause’s 850-pound list he thinks they should be banned because they might make white or cisgender students feel “guilty” about their relative privilege. But challenges have also emerged in more liberal states. In Washington, for example, a school dropped the 1960 classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” because of its use of racist language; a a school in California dropped “Of Mice and Men” for similar reasons. With movements to ban books emerging from both right and left, some have concluded that schools are now the last “battlefront” in the “ever-escalating culture wars”.
Indeed, the book ban itself has become a topic of heated political debate. On the one hand, some commentators say that certain books should be banned because they “divide us as a people in order to indoctrinate children into a dangerous ideology”, such as Yael Levin-Sheldon, a mother of two and chapter president of the conservative parent group No Left Turn in Education, told NPR in October. Opponents of the book ban, on the other hand, see these challenges as “efforts to suppress disadvantaged ideas and books…as part of a broader attack on democracy,” as Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, wrote in the Los Angeles Times earlier this year.
These heated debates are not only unsurprising, but justified. What children learn in school shapes their views of themselves, their communities and the world around them, and can have lifelong and even generational implications. As Laats said“Whoever controls what children read controls the definition of, in quotes, the real America.”
The decision of what to teach or not to teach is therefore not something to be taken lightly. And while these recent debates have been fairly US-centric, the book ban cases are part of a larger global trend that has seen countries, schools, parents and students openly reflect on the value, purpose, tools and methods of education.
“Whoever controls what children read controls the definition, in quotes, of the real America.”
Global education has been one of the biggest victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, 90% of all school-aged learners have had their education disrupted by the pandemic at some point in the past two years. Yet in some parts of the world, the shift to remote learning caused by pandemic shutdowns has also opened doors for creative and flexible teaching methods.
Recognizing both the crisis and the opportunities presented by the pandemic, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for an Education Transformation Summit to be held later in September encourage world leaders to make concrete commitments and develop plans to improve education in their countries.
With this event fast approaching, UN Member States are currently assessing – or should be assessing – their existing education systems and consulting with stakeholders to identify their priorities for an education overhaul. In this context, the book Banning Debates in the United States actually provides a useful case study.
First, the resurgence of challenges is indicative of a renewed interest of parents in educational policies. Tiffany Justice, co-founder of conservative American parenting group Moms for Liberty, argued that a silver lining of the pandemic – or, as she puts it, “COVID lemonade” – is that parents have necessarily become more engaged. with their child-rearing, causing them to question whether or not they approve of what their children are being taught. And this trend is not unique to the United States.
Looking ahead to the Education Transformation Summit, it is therefore possible that parents will be a more informed and vocal stakeholder group than countries anticipate. It is imperative that in conducting consultations in preparation for the summit, leaders provide space for parents, as well as students and teachers, to voice their opinions and participate in shaping national education agendas. Failure to do so would risk incurring the wrath of some truly fearsome momma and daddy bears.
Second, the American book ban debate raises a larger question about the role that educational institutions should play in society. A clear message I received from the hundreds of young people I worked with last year as a United Nations Foundation Next Generation Fellow was that schools are not currently equipping students with the skills they need for work and life. The Secretariat of the Transforming Education Summit has responded positively to this concern by including “learning for life, work and sustainable development” among the five questions that will be addressed in discussions with stakeholders before the summit. Questions participants will be encouraged to answer include: How can education systems help students “acquire knowledge, skills and values for sustainable development”? And how can programs emphasize “ecological, cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary learning” so that students “are empowered to act and contribute to world peace”?
That issues like these have been included on the agenda is commendable and will help ensure that the summit responds meaningfully to the demands of young students and teachers. But if book bans in the United States say anything, it’s that these discussions are likely to be deeply divisive. Some stakeholders will inevitably take the position that schools do not have to impart particular values to children, while others will argue that schools have a moral responsibility to teach students to respect the liberal principle. values. Similarly, stakeholders are sure to clash over definitions of terms such as ‘sustainable development’, ‘interdisciplinarity’ and even ‘education’. Moreover, it is almost inconceivable that stakeholders will come to an agreement on who should have the final say in deciding what children are taught: states, parents, teachers, or the students themselves?
The fact that a growing number of increasingly vocal stakeholders are converging on this area has important implications for leaders as they prepare for September. Although they are not expected to reach a global agreement on education reform after a single summit, they should still be prepared to present high-level national consensus positions around some of the major issues concerning education. future of education. In light of education becoming an increasingly politicized issue, leaders must ensure that these positions are well regarded and representative.
To that end, their best hope is to start early and consult widely. But time is already running out.
Aishwarya Machani is a United Nations Foundation Next Generation Fellow. She led a consultative process bringing together hundreds of young people from around the world to contribute to the UN Secretary General’s report “Our Common Agenda”. She also co-wrote “Our future program», a vision and a support plan for future generations. She is a recent graduate of Cambridge University. His weekly WPR column appears every Tuesday.