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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Not Proved

My Facebook friends (well, a third of them; another third have been posting links to right-leaning articles, while another third have been posting cute photographs of their children, and delightful pictures of kittens with amusing captions) have been linking with approval to this piece by quondam law professor Patricia Williams. Williams argues that "[t]here has been an unfortunate uptick in academic book bannings and firings, made worse by a nationwide disparagement of teachers, teachers' unions and scholarship itself," and links this purported trend to a general trend of anti-intellectualism in the United States. The headline: "Anti-intellectualism is taking over the US."

Now, I yield to no one--except, obviously, all Europeans--in my willingness to accuse the United States of being an anti-intellectual wasteland, what with its John Wayne, its McDonalds, its Ronald Reagan, its cowboy movies, and so on. But I hardly think Williams proves her case, justifies her language, or shows that this is some kind of rising trend. 

In journalism, as we know, three of anything is a trend. Williams goes one better and points to four, or maybe three-and-a-half, examples. The first is the effort in Arizona to kill off ethnic studies curricula in the public schools. She describes it as "bann[ing], in effect," a range of books "from the schools" and "remov[ing]" books from the school system. It does not. I oppose the law (and take no position on the curriculum itself). But it is not a book-banning, even in effect, as far as I know, unless it demands the removal of those books from the schools' libraries. If a teacher decides to replace one textbook with another she is not "banning" the first text; if a school system, rightly or wrongly, decides to replace one course of study with another it is not engaging in "book-banning," unless it prohibits the books from being present on school grounds.

Williams's second example is that of a teacher at a charter school who was "was summarily fired after asking permission to let her students conduct a fundraiser for Trayvon Martin's family." Whatever else that decision is, it hardly strikes me as good evidence of book-banning or anti-intellectualism, or indeed as especially good evidence of an uptick in teacher firings or of disregard for teachers or their unions. The third example involves a 2010 Sixth Circuit applying Garcetti to the dismissal of a public school for teaching about censored books; the controversy arose in 2001 and she was dismissed in 2002. Whatever one thinks of Garcetti, that's not terribly strong evidence either -- and certainly not evidence of a recent rash or trend.

Her final example--I think; I'm not quite clear on how she fits it in--is the fuss over Naomi Schaefer Riley's dumb online column for the Chronicle of Higher Education in which she excoriated black studies programs based on the title of various dissertations she hadn't read. Since Riley was fired following reader demands , I suppose she could use this as evidence of the trend in "bannings" and "firings" she denounces. As it turns out, she actually uses it as evidence of Riley's "arrogance" and "cocooned 'white ghetto' narrow-mindedness," which she treats as part and parcel of the anti-intellectual trend. Williams should rest easier upon learning that other coccooned white-ghetto bearers of narrow minds have been allowed to keep their not-especially-good-either columns at the CHE (which, I hasten too add, is not the same thing as defending Riley). In any event, it's not much evidence of anything.

I understand that there is an American streak of anti-intellectualism, and that there generally has been. I am also aware that without generalizations, the commentary industry would cease to exist. This just doesn't seem like a terribly effective set of generalizations to me. I'm surprised, sort of, that the column got such nice play.     


Posted by Paul Horwitz on May 23, 2012 at 01:34 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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Somebody ought to publish someday, maybe in a full-page display ad directed at the nation's kids, an annotated list of all the important books that have been banned by Muslims, by the Roman Catholic Church, by Fundamentalists, by school districts, by the Feds (Lady Chatterly's Lover, Tropic of Cancer) and by the Germans (Mein Kampf) and Chinese. Of course, the stated purpose would be to warn the kids not to go anywhere near them.

I know such a list would have been invaluable to me when I was a young adolescent. There are partial lists around, including on Wikipedia.

Posted by: Jimbino | May 24, 2012 10:15:42 AM

I'd say she the headline is spot on but perhaps a little gazing in the mirror is warranted.

Posted by: Jeff | May 23, 2012 9:47:48 PM

Paul, you're suffering from a well-known ailment, Canadian Let's All be Friends Disease. Those afflicted with CLAFD think that they need to always stake out a position between extremes, in the hopes that they can be friends with everyone. Many of my Canadian friends have found successful treatment for this ailment, and have led productive lives since. To be sure, there are risks to treatment, including a small minority who end up with New Yorker In Your Face Fucking Moron syndrome, though NYIYFFM generally can be helpful for professional advancement and is certainly more intellectually palatable. But one consequence of CLAFD is that you attract people like Professor Adler who then think that defending the Arizona law can be done in polite society! Get help, Paul!

Posted by: Brian | May 23, 2012 9:03:25 PM

Paul --

If anything, you're being too easy on Williams, including on her characterization of the Arizona law. For those interested, the ALJ's decision upholding the state superintnendent's conclusion the tucson program violated state law is available here:


Posted by: Jonathan H. Adler | May 23, 2012 4:41:23 PM

Cowboy movie guy: I agree! That was a reference to the old cliched packaged criticism of America. Westerns are fantastic.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | May 23, 2012 4:24:53 PM

All that said, I believe the motivation behind Williams' piece was simply to try to treat legitimate (albeit heavy-handed and poorly written) criticism of black studies programs as attempts to censor. SHE wanted to be the one crying "stop shutting us up!" The irony (and it goes beyond irony) is that in this case the critic was the one silenced. The irony (and it goes beyond irony) is that the CHE piece in question was attempting to police certain standards of intellectualism, and is now being called "anti-intellectual."

Posted by: AndyK | May 23, 2012 3:58:09 PM

On a side issue, may I suggest that several of the cowboy movies starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford were some of the best art our country has produced? And, because they explored the theme of history and law as the myth of the victor, were intellectual as well? I'm thinking in particular of Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.

Posted by: cowboy movie guy | May 23, 2012 3:57:26 PM

Elementary school districts generally have wide latitude to police their curricula and their employees. I do believe the Sixth Circuit took it a bit too far in the Evans-Mashall case, however (noting that academic freedom as a concept is entirely inapplicable in the high school curricula context). Garcetti shouldn't apply in these cases, and the curriculum restrictions could have been upheld by analyzing the actual First Amendment claims in question, as the court tried to do at the end of the opinion, rather than going the Pickering / Garcetti "pursuant to official duties" route.

And the same is true in Arizona. It's not that high school teachers sign on to the totality of the school district's curricula when they are hired. They still have First Amendment rights. And their function is education, and inculcating a critical-reflective attitude in the next generation's citizens. Their speech on any given subject is precisely what they are paid to do: to discuss and debate issues with students.

In that respect, I would be much more comfortable analyzing this in a Hazelwood framework, or something similar. As a teacher, you're a public servant, yes, but your speech should only be regulated insofar as the school district is upholding legitimate pedagogical goals, or something of the sort.

In a conflict between a teacher with a banned book and a school district, I would much rather see the inquiry begin "is there a reason to ban the book?" than "are you acting pursuant to your official duties?"

Posted by: AndyK | May 23, 2012 3:54:24 PM

Again, thanks for the comments. I doubt I'll have a chance to reply to every one after this. AF, the most I would feel comfortable saying is that it *might* depend on the reasons for prohibiting the teaching of literature. I'm not sure how far Hazelwood gets one in this context. Pico, I think, is more on point but, aside from being highly fractured, I think both sides of the case agree that apart from straight political partisanship, school boards must have a fair amount of flexibility to make choices about things like curricula; a number of justices thought that even most library decisions fall into the same general category of discretionary decisions made by school officials, while a number of others thought that different standards could be applied to some set of decisions by school libraries.

Michael, I take your point and thanks. I would say that Williams uses "in effect" but then leverages that rhetorically through the rest of her column, viz. her subsequent line about "removing" books from the school system. By the same token, however, if I have leveraged her language as well then I can hardly object to being called on it.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | May 23, 2012 3:47:18 PM

"I wouldn't have a problem, from a standard free speech perspective (eg., not some newfangled, dubious institutionalist perspective), with a law prohibiting the teaching of literature altogether."

It would depend on the reasons for prohibiting the teaching of literature wouldn't it? That would be my reading of cases like Hazelwood and Board of Ed v. Pico.

Posted by: AF | May 23, 2012 3:34:34 PM

With apologies to Jeff Harrison, I'm grateful for the comments. Just to reiterate, for various reasons I oppose the law; I have *some* reservations about the curriculum, but find the law disturbing just the same. I would rather that such choices be made by school professionals than by state legislators or, on the whole, school board members (my wife excepted), although I may sometimes disagree with the loaded choices that school professionals may make. I sympathize with Jack's sense of the larger context of the law. The problem, for me at least, is that at least in non-STEM subjects (although there too, potentially), it's difficult to avoid politics in curricular choices. It is not unreasonable to assume that some educators saw this curriculum *as* political, and approved of those politics; it is not unreasonable to assume that some legislators saw this curriculum as being the wrong sort of politics. And, of course, such contests can potentially run in either direction. But I don't think this political contestation is strong evidence of a rising trend toward anti-intellectualism (which, in any event, I think has been there all along). And I think that even if one objects to such policies as content-oriented and politicized, that's not the same thing as calling them book-banning, which in general usage is about cutting off access to knowledge altogether rather than holding contests about what instruction will form part of the curriculum and what won't. Of course, a policy can be bad for other reasons than the argument that it constitutes book-banning.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | May 23, 2012 3:33:06 PM


I have a smaller quibble with your assertion. Williams says that the Arizona law "in effect" bans the books. You emphasize those two words when quoting her, but then you say that Williams is wrong because "it is not a book-banning, even in effect, as far as I know, unless it demands the removal of those books from the schools' libraries." That analysis seems to conflate "in effect" with plain ol' book-banning. What Williams appears (to me) to be saying is what AF and Joe say above, which is that by prohibiting a certain subject from being taught, the school district is forbidding books with a particular framing from being taught in the classroom. That will result ("in effect") in children being deprived of access to these books.

Posted by: Michael Teter | May 23, 2012 3:25:15 PM


As a survivor of the Arizona experience, my view is that it is clear that ethnic studies in Tucson was eliminated because of the content of the ideas, and based on fear of rising Hispanic population and power. Admittedly, eliminating ethnic studies is not "book banning" per se, in the same sense that firing all teachers of a particular race or religion would not be "book banning." Nevertheless, even if it is legal, it is not good.

I don't disagree that a trend has not been proven by the Williams piece alone.


Posted by: Jack | May 23, 2012 3:15:51 PM

If the interpretation offered by AF is reasonable, the books seem to be "banned" from courses. This is so even if there is a oopy somewhere in the library. If books were "banned" from places where they would get the most exposure but still around in some limited fashion, often in a place obscure from the general public, it appears to me as a junior varsity version of book banning. At least, given we aren't being overly literal here, right?

Posted by: Joe | May 23, 2012 2:56:29 PM

I appreciate the clarification but if she still teaches law, the confusion is understandable.

Posted by: Joe | May 23, 2012 2:42:35 PM

I'd have to think about it. I wouldn't have a problem, from a standard free speech perspective (eg., not some newfangled, dubious institutionalist perspective), with a law prohibiting the teaching of literature altogether. But even if I concluded that the law ultimately violated the First Amendment, I don't know that I would conclude that it was a book-banning law.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | May 23, 2012 2:39:54 PM

Then I suppose you wouldn't have a problem, at least from a free speech perspective, with a law prohibiting any "course or class" that "includes" Shakespeare.

Posted by: AF | May 23, 2012 2:32:45 PM

I know she still teaches; I went to Columbia, although I never had her as a professor. "Quondam" was a reference, perhaps an unfair one, to the fact that she seems to have slipped the bonds of everyday legal academia and become a more or less full-time public intellectual. I take full responsibility.

AF, I'm afraid I do think that reading, which I assume as well for the purposes of argument, absolves the school system of the charge of book-banning. That's not to say I agree with the policy.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | May 23, 2012 2:26:21 PM

me also wonders why someone labeled "a professor of law at Columbia University and a regular columnist for the Nation" is "quondam" though I know it might be tempting to use such a neat sounding word.

Posted by: Joe | May 23, 2012 2:22:25 PM

Sorry -- "quondam"? How so?

Posted by: Me | May 23, 2012 2:11:39 PM

"[I]f a school system, rightly or wrongly, decides to replace one course of study with another it is not engaging in "book-banning," unless it prohibits the books from being present on school grounds."

Arizona House Bill 2281 doesn't simply replace one course of study with another. It prohibits "any courses or classes" that "include," among other things, advocacy of "ethnic solidarity" or promotion of "resentment toward a race or class of people" or of "overthrow of the United States government." It says nothing about what should replace the prohibited courses (or the prohibited portions of courses).

The law can be reasonably interpreted as banning the assignment of certain books -- say, Fanon's "The Wretched of the Earth" -- in class. The fact that it doesn't necessarily ban them from libraries hardly absolves it of the charge of book-banning.

Posted by: AF | May 23, 2012 2:08:00 PM

Wait, I'm left out (pun intended) of each third: I'm the one who posts pictures of Buddhist iconography and trishaws (cycle rickshaws or pedicabs). It is true, however, that I post my fair share of all sorts of Left stuff (although not the Williams' piece...and I'd like to think mine doesn't merely 'lean' but stands upright), and I have posted a couple pictures of my _grandchild_.

And that is a nice profile picture of you and your son Joseph (it makes me feel older than I am).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 23, 2012 2:06:38 PM

I dreamed of polar bears. They told me that this piece was about as good asWilliams' "scholarly" work, not excluding her bizarre defense of Tawana Brawley on the grounds of the irrelevancy of truth.

Posted by: Anon08 | May 23, 2012 1:45:53 PM

I dreamed of polar bears. They told me that this piece was about as good asWilliams' "scholarly" work, not excluding her bizarre defense of Tawana Brawley on the grounds of the irrelevancy of truth.

Posted by: Anon08 | May 23, 2012 1:45:52 PM

Glad you thought that picture of my son was cute!

Posted by: Joseph Slater | May 23, 2012 1:41:57 PM

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