Hanover, VA, High School Student Speaks Out About Academic Freedom

In light of recent concerns regarding the “un-American” message and overall inclusion of the film Searching for the Roots of 9/11 in Hanover County, VA, academic curriculum, school officials have begun discussing the introduction of a policy that would remove the film and other “controversial” materials from the standard curriculum. Along with the film, five books, including The Color Purple, Thou Shalt Not Dump the Skater Dude, Thirteen Reasons Why, So Far From the Bamboo Grove, and The Will, have been included in the list of materials that teachers will need to receive parental approval for in order to teach in their classrooms.

This is not the first time that some of these titles have raised the hackles of concerned parents and subsequently been included on banned book lists. With subject matter ranging from the discussion of racial prejudices to global perspectives on WWII to issues of adolescent suicide, these texts express points-of-view that may be radically different from the experiences of students themselves. Many argue that exposure to different perspectives is fundamentally key for students to learn how to comprehend and engage with their own lives critically. Moreover, it is the inclusion of “challenging” and “sensitive” materials in the classroom that allows students to become aware of broader, global issues that may not necessarily be the immediate concerns of the communities in which they reside. But as Phyllis Therox, an Ashland resident, ironically points out, “the Hanover policy apparently stems from a belief ‘that our children are not capable of learning the truth or absorbing other points of view.’”

Although the district has repeatedly commented that the policy is not an outright ban — it is an attempt for the schools and teachers to be actively “cognizant of community concerns” — the implications of the policy are anything but innocent. In an attempt to appease a subsection of their community, the school is in effect handicapping teachers and limiting the education of its students.

This is the argument that Daniel Longest, a Patrick Henry High School senior, is vocally making with regard to his school’s new policy. As Longest has expressed, “Putting books on a controversial list… is restricting knowledge. The government is getting in between what the teachers want to teach and students want to learn.” Citing the First Amendment and his right to freedom of speech and access to information, Longest has been actively attending Hanover County School Board meetings in order to provide his stance as a student directly impacted by the policy — a stance that will hopefully show the district that academic freedom is both important and essential to the teachers teaching the students, but ultimately the students themselves. Commenting on the original film in question, Longest says, “The exploration of international perspectives is not un-American. We’re a nation of immigrants.”

Originally, the board had intended to make a ruling on the policy earlier this month, but the decision has now been postponed until next month. As Daniel Longest has demonstrated, now is the time for students and teachers within these communities to voice their own concerns over the censorship and regulation of their curriculum.

Although it is admirable for district officials to try to appease all members of their communities and to attempt to preemptively curb any possible complaints from concerned parents by taking drastic measures such as these to exclude (or make difficult to include) certain books in classrooms, it is important to recognize that these actions do not safeguard students. Rather, they actively stunt academic growth and the development of critical thinking skills — the opposite of any scholastic agenda. Most importantly, though, these policies are violating students’ access to information about the global community they are part of, leaving them grossly ill-informed about and largely ill-equipped to deal with the world they live in.

There will always be materials that present situations that may be upsetting and difficult to initially comprehend, but it is the responsibility of teachers and parents to be there in those situations to talk through the difficult with their students and children. The answer is never to outright remove materials that could potentially cause upset; it should be to include these as stepping stones towards initiating more critical conversation and engagement with the larger global community.

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!