Book bans undercut how Florida kids learn to think | Column
Key elements of critical thinking include seeking out opposing viewpoints, using evidence and engaging in debate. Book banning is the opposite of all that.
Banned books are visible at the Central Library, a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library system, in New York City last year.
Banned books are visible at the Central Library, a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library system, in New York City last year. [ TED SHAFFREY | AP ]
Published March 15, 2023

Almost every dystopian-themed novel, from “1984″ to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” features a government that controls the spread of information, including the books that are allowed and the wiping of history it doesn’t want told. Today, Florida is looking more and more like a place where these fictional societies are becoming reality.

Helen Lee Bouygues is the founder and president of the Reboot Foundation.
Helen Lee Bouygues is the founder and president of the Reboot Foundation. [ Reboot Foundation ]

What began as an effort to remove books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” just a few months ago could end with students unable to take college-level Advanced Placement calculus.

Last fall, conservative groups and politicians began removing from school shelves certain books that deal with issues of race, gender and injustice. That grew last month to encompass the prohibition of an Advanced Placement class, African American studies. But even that wasn’t enough for “anti-woke” Gov. Ron DeSantis, who then threatened to replace AP classes in public schools altogether, though he later toned down his criticism after public blowback.

What is really on the chopping block, however, are the critical thinking skills of every young Floridian who attends a public school in the Sunshine State.

For those who don’t know, Advanced Placement classes are college-credit courses taught by high school teachers. The courses are designed and overseen by the College Board, a nonprofit organization that’s been the benchmark of high-level academic rigor in American high schools for more than 100 years. It’s the same organization that administers the SAT college entrance test and the PSAT, which determines National Merit scholars.

The AP African American studies course, which DeSantis banned, saying it “lacked educational value,” emphasizes the topics of race, racism and racial injustice. These themes correlate with many of the book titles recently removed from school and public libraries in Florida and elsewhere, according to PEN America, a non-profit organization that tracks book-banning efforts.

This is an issue that should concern everyone, regardless of where you live or your politics. Conservatives claim that these bannings are needed to protect students from mature themes they are not old enough to understand, and to prevent them from being “indoctrinated” by left-leaning teachers. But what they are really doing is undercutting the development of critical thinking skills in their young people.

As Japanese author Haruki Murakami once stated, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”

I think that’s DeSantis’ whole point.

At its core, critical thinking is the ability to interrogate and consider different perspectives and viewpoints. It requires reasoning, logic and analysis to make choices and understand problems. Key elements of critical thinking include seeking out opposing viewpoints, using evidence, and engaging in debate.

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This simply isn’t possible when students are prevented from hearing those perspectives, from gathering facts independently, or when they are told at the outset that a topic lacks “educational value.”

The common topics and themes of the books targeted by conservative groups most often include the LGBTQ+ community, racism and to the ideas of equality and justice. Exposing students to such ideas will help them develop empathy and understanding because they allow students a window into a reality that may not be theirs. Without this perspective, young people may never even think about questioning the “why” and “how” — all elements that make one a strong critical thinker. After all, you can’t think critically about an issue that your state has decided that you are not allowed to learn about.

Florida risks real harm to their young people if they continue down this path. The benefits of being a strong critical thinker are more than simply being a better informed individual. There is scientific research that suggests that individuals with greater critical thinking skills lead happier and more productive lives. Their ability to reason through various life situations reduces their chances of making bad or costly decisions, like racking up credit card debt, filing for divorce or driving under the influence.

What’s more puzzling is why the state would take steps to reduce critical thinking in schools when there is near universal support for teaching those skills. A 2021 survey by the Reboot Foundation, which I founded, found that 95% of Americans believe that critical thinking should be taught in K-12 schools. Among employers and business leaders, critical thinking is routinely one of the top “soft skills” they look for in potential employees.

Censorship is always a slippery slope. It may start with books, but it quite often leads to darker, more sinister places. Banning books and courses does not shield students from themes that are “too mature.” Rather it denies them the opportunity to learn about, experience and consider social differences in the classroom. And without this experience, how can they grow into critical thinkers with a depth of understanding for people unlike themselves?

Unless, of course, that’s exactly what DeSantis and his ilk want?

Helen Lee Bouygues is the founder and president of the Reboot Foundation, which develops tools and resources to help people cultivate a capacity for critical thinking, media literacy, and reflective thought.