Religious conservatives want to impose heavy-handed censorship on public schools. We should reject this, but how much control should parents have over what is taught?

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Florida Republicans are afraid of books. Not specific books. Just books.

If you didn’t know how bad the red-state censorship campaign has gotten, it’s this bad: In Manatee County, Florida, teachers have been forced to remove their classroom libraries or risk felony prosecution. Under state law HB 1467, signed by Ron DeSantis last year, neither teachers nor parents are permitted to curate school book collections. Instead, the only books permitted in schools are those approved by state employees to ensure that they’re “appropriate” and don’t contain “unsolicited theories that may lead to student indoctrination” (which is right-wing code for anything about LGBTQ rights or race that might make white bigots mad).

DeSantis has literally reinvented the nihil obstat and imprimatur scheme of medieval Catholic censorship. Florida politicians don’t want students to get their hands on any of those dangerous collections of independent thought, unless the state Ministry of Truth has ensured they contain nothing which could disturb the complacency of the conservative mind.

Is there a bright line?

This heavy-handed censorship is the mark of a party that’s afraid of free speech and free thought. Books are empathy expanders, not just teaching us things we didn’t know, but helping us see the world from other perspectives. That’s exactly what DeSantis and his ilk want to prevent. They’re comfortable in their cramped nests of ignorance, and they want to keep everyone as small and frightened and miserable as they are.

However, this controversy points to a deeper question: How much of a say should I, as a parent, have over what’s taught in my son’s public school?

After all, teachers are public servants. They should be subject to democratic oversight, no less than elected officials or police. And as the guardian of my child’s interests, I obviously have a stake in his education. I have a responsibility to make sure he’s learning truthful information and good values. That’s especially true when it comes to younger children, who are the most vulnerable and impressionable they’ll ever be.

It’s easy to say that we should leave the job of educating kids up to teachers, who are the experts, and keep politics out of it. However, that would be too simplistic. Teachers are human beings, with their own biases and flaws. Even if we give them wide latitude to use their own judgment, there have to be some rules about what is and isn’t acceptable in the classroom.

What if a public school teacher believed it was morally wrong to be gay or transgender, or to be in an interracial relationship? How much latitude should they have to express that belief on the job? What if they were stocking their classroom with Christian apologetics books, or storybooks with archaic and offensive stereotypes about gender roles, or history texts that uncritically praised colonizers and slave owners?

Surely we, as progressive parents, would object to this. We’d say that teacher was pushing their personal beliefs on students in a way that shouldn’t be permitted. We’d want school officials or lawmakers to do something about it.

What, then, is the difference between this and censorship-happy Republicans who want to ban books about gay people and civil rights? Is there any consistent, principled way to draw a bright line between these cases? You can always say “It’s because our values are right and theirs are wrong,” but that doesn’t strike me as a philosophically satisfying answer.

Education is never apolitical

Another too-easy answer is that schools should just teach the facts in a neutral way, without bringing values into it. The reality is that there’s no such thing as neutral or apolitical education.

It’s impossible to teach about every single thing that ever happened, or to present every opinion about an event or a person. We have to make choices about what should be included and what can be omitted in the interests of time. And the choice of which perspectives we present and whose voices we exclude is inherently value-driven.

We already recognize this in less-controversial cases. No one objects to teachers who “take sides” when discussing, say, the American Revolution or World War II. No one says that history courses don’t give enough weight to King George’s perspective, or that we’re not being fair to the Third Reich or Imperial Japan or fascist Italy.

Teaching history or science or literature with extra emphasis on the contributions of women, non-white and indigenous people, those who’ve often been left out of the narrative, is a political decision. Teaching those same subjects without those voices, focusing on the ideas and the contributions of rich white men as has usually been done, is also a political decision. In either case, it’s human beings, with all their messy biases and their clashing opinions, who have to make these choices. There’s no mathematical formula that tells us what’s fair.

E pluribus unum

The principle we need to get us out of this thicket is pluralism. Because human beings have so many differing opinions, public education ought to do justice to that fact. Any education worth the name ought to ensure that students hear from a diversity of voices. We can’t present everything, but we should try to present as many different ideas and perspectives as we can.

Pluralism is the difference between education and indoctrination. I don’t expect, and wouldn’t want, a school to teach that there was a single correct perspective on the world, or that there’s a single way to think, speak, act, eat, dress, love, or form families. Frankly, I’d be uncomfortable with a school that presented it as such, even if their perspective was one I agreed with.

That’s the bright line we can draw. The conservative demand is to reduce education to a single viewpoint. They want to censor all perspectives other than their own, because they don’t trust teachers to use their own judgment or kids to make up their own minds.

Progressives can respond that the purpose of education isn’t to push propaganda, but to equip kids with the knowledge they need to make their own choices. We want them to decide for themselves what they believe and how they want to live. We have no fear of intellectual freedom. But if there’s any political faction that is afraid of fair competition, that wants to rig the game and prevent every voice from being heard… that’s as good as a confession that their ideas can’t survive contact with the truth.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...