Cowards, Censorship, and Collateral Damage: The Other Reading War

My partner and I took two of my grandchildren—Brees, 6, a kindergartener, and Skylar, 8, a third-grader—to a local high school football game where their father is an assistant coach.

As we were leaving, Brees said “Dorman” as we passed a sign for the school. My partner asked if he read the word, he explained he remembered “Dorman” starts with a “D” and ends with an “N” so he made a contextualized, and correct guess.

We praised him, and then he proceeded to spell “Dorman” with brief hesitations—”D,” “O,” “R,” “M,” “E,” “N.” My partner told him he did a great job and that he was nearly perfect, but the final vowel is “A,” although the “E” was a reasonable choice considering how the word is pronounced (especially here in the South).

I think about these children, beginning and emerging readers both, often as I continue to challenge the reductive current reading war driven by the “science of reading” movement. I have written about Skylar, an eager reader, and included both children on the cover of the second edition of my book about that reading war:

Brees demonstrated the value of having a wide and deep toolbox for reading for meaning, and represents, I think, the real-world value of seeking context and clues beyond simple decoding and reliance on phonics (although both are, of course, part of that toolbox). Ultimately, the key to his reading “Dorman” was experiential—having visited the school and having seen the word on clothes, etc., with his father.

And while this reading war leaves me nearly drained from frustration—and even angry—I am possibly more concerned about the other reading war. That reading war is the rise of censorship by parents and elected Republicans as well as the self-censorship occurring in our schools, self-censorship that is often nearly invisible but eroding literacy and academic freedom.

To paraphrase John Dewey and add a bit of attitude, why the hell are we concerned about teaching children to read if we are bound and determined to erase books and meaningful texts from their hands?

Traditionally, we have implemented in schools two approaches that I reject—whole class assigning and studying of texts (often limited to a very narrow canon) and allowing parents to opt their children out of those assignments.

My frustration with those practices now seems very naive since the new normal is that any single parent can have books and texts banned not just for their children, but for all children. And unlike the occasional complaint I experienced when teaching high school, states have passed book bans and curriculum censorship—exclusively by Republicans—all across the U.S.

I spent a few days this past week in Flatbush/Brooklyn, and while walking around, passed the Brooklyn Public Library just after sunset:

There is no way to justify book bans or censorship—not by Republicans, not by parents, and especially not by educators, the most vile actors in this movement.

There are books and ideas I genuinely loathe, such as the so-called novels of Ayn Rand. I criticize them, and would never encourage anyone to read them, but I would fight to make sure they are on book shelves of school and public libraries and in books stores, that anyone has access to them, that everyone has access to them.

“Coward” seems too mild a word, in fact.

But, yes, people who ban books, people who censor are cowards, and our children as well as academic freedom are the collateral damage in this senseless and UnAmerican reading war.