The “Anti-Woke” Book Ban Agenda is Impacting College Students Ability to Read

By: Alyssa Miller | Published: Feb 14, 2024

For the last several years, there has been a largely right-wing movement to ban books with “woke agendas” throughout certain states and communities. This includes banning books with “woke” themes, like violence, abuse, racism, race, and LGBTQ+ identities, from classrooms and library shelves.

However, this book ban movement is starting to negatively affect students looking to pursue higher education in the United States. Let’s get into it.

More and More Books Are Leaving Schools

In a 2023 study from the free speech group PEN America, the organization found that 3,362 cases of book bans took place during the year. Book bans saw a surge compared to the 2021-2022 school year, when 2,532 were prohibited.

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A hand pulling a book out from a row of books on a shelf in a library

Source: Element5 Digital/Pexels

“We keep wondering if we’ve reached the peak yet,” Meehan says to NPR. “And all signals suggest that there’s still growing momentum, and it really is against public opinion.”

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Florida Has the Most Banned Books

A majority of the banned books came from Florida, which accounts for more than 40 percent of book bans (1,406 books). Texas came in second place with 625 books, followed by Missouri, Utah, and Pennsylvania.

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U.S. House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) speaks alongside a stack of banned books during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on March 24, 2023 in Washington, DC. Jeffries spoke out against the recently passed Parents Bill of Rights Act and the banning and censorship of books in schools.

Source: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

PEN asserts that coordinated pressure campaigns at both local and national levels, along with punitive state laws, are turbocharging efforts to ban books. These actions are wreaking havoc on teachers, librarians, and students.

Educators Are Feeling the Effects

In a new study released by First Book Research & Insights, more than 1,500 educators serving students in under-resourced communities responded to the challenges they are facing as book bans continue to limit the reading material both in and outside of the classroom.

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A teach kneeling down by a student in a classroom filled with many other students sitting in desks

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For teachers, the book bans are affecting morale, with 71 percent of educators saying that the bans make them feel distrusted, making it difficult to teach material in a classroom that relates to the subject material.

Low-Income School Are Losing Even More Resources 

“Educators serving students in low-income, under-resourced communities remain unheard in the discussion–and they are a critical voice because of their role in supporting student academic growth while managing the negative effects of ongoing actions to ban books,” says Kyle Zimmer, president and CEO of First Book.

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A library shelf with books sectioned off by caution tape

Source: Lansing Library/Flickr

Zimmer continues, saying, “The effort to restrict access to books has excessively targeted diverse books, which we know are indispensable in engaging kids, improving student reading scores, and developing a strong sense of self and empathy for others. These books empower young learners to foster a lifelong love of reading.”

Classrooms, Libraries, and School Districts Are Feeling the Impact

Only 7 percent of educators surveyed admitted to removing books from their classrooms following book bans. However, 15 percent reported that books were removed from libraries, suggesting a broader impact beyond individual classrooms. Notably, 18 percent of educators confirmed the existence of banned titles within their districts, highlighting the scope of this phenomenon.

Rows of library books next to wooden desk with laptops

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However, more than one-third of the 1,500 educators surveyed believe that the impacts reach beyond districts that are facing bans.

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The Book Bans Effect on Students

The study from First Books highlights the experiences and perceptions of educators working right now in classrooms during the wide-sweeping book ban that limits the material taught and read in schools.

Guests attend MoveOn Political Action’s Banned Book Mobile event with local authors and teachers on October 01, 2023 in Decatur, Georgia. The MoveOn Banned Book Mobile is handing out frequently banned books for free to anyone who attends the event.

Source: Derek White/Getty Images for MoveOn

72 percent of respondents reported that restricting book access leads to a decline in student engagement with reading. Further worrying, one-third of educators observed a decrease in students’ critical thinking skills as book bans increased. 78 percent report that students are reading more when given the choice to read banned books (a common theme throughout history as seen with the Pack Horse librarians).

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Students Lack Critical Thinking and Engagement 

In an era where most people are chronically online, critical thinking and long-term engagement have been two of several factors that teachers and students are struggling with. Critical thinking encourages students to go beyond the face value of information and dive deeper into the “why” or “how” of something.

Three students sitting on a brown couch in a library reading books on a coffee table

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Engagement, which has suffered critically as short content has become that mainstream marker of entertainment, allows students to sit and think critically about information rather than disregard it for something else.

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“[Book bans] diminish the quality of education students have access to and restrict their exposure to important perspectives that form the fabric of a culturally pluralist society like the United States,” explains Sonya Douglass, Professor of Education Leadership.

A group of teachers holding signs while standing on the steps of a building blocked by a large iron fence

Source: John Ramspott

Douglass continues, saying, ““It’s a battle over the soul of the country in many ways; it’s about what we teach young people about our country, what we determine to be the truth, and what we believe should be included in the curriculum they’re receiving. There’s a lot at stake there.”

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This Educator Fears for the Future

Advocates for book bans are seeing their positions challenged by individuals committed to undoing such restrictions. While this is a step in the right direction, the effects of these policies are already here.

A woman in a blue hoodie reading a book behind another open book with a green apple on top of it in a library

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Adam Kotsko, a college educator, wrote in Slate about the effects that he is starting to see in classrooms as he hands out the assigned readings.

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Students' Attention Spans Are Shrinking

“For most of my career, I assigned around 30 pages of reading per class meeting as a baseline expectation—sometimes scaling up for purely expository readings or pulling back for more difficult texts,” Kotsko writes.

An open book with a white tablet sitting on top on a wooden desk in a classroom

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He continues: “Now students are intimidated by anything over 10 pages and seem to walk away from readings of as little as 20 pages with no real understanding.”

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The “New Obstacles” for Teachers

Kotsko argues that teachers are “facing new obstacles in structuring and delivering our course” as students’ reading comprehension is at an all-time low, inhibiting their ability to grasp the basic argument of an article.

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Rather than blame students or high school teachers for failing to prepare for higher education, Kotsko blames the failures of the educational system for teaching the test, the distractions of smartphones, and the absence of establishing basic reading competence.

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How Will Students Challenge Themselves? 

Kotsko believes that these three factors plus the banning of books have led young people to not have the capacity to follow extended narratives and arguments in the classroom.

MoveOn Political Actions Banned Book Mobile stops for an event with local authors and teachers on October 18, 2023 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The MoveOn Banned Book Mobile handed out frequently banned books for free to anyone who attended the event.

Source: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for MoveOn

The best way to capture the complexity of life and its challenges is through large-scale prose or challenging academic articles. Are fleeting TikToks and fact-checking with a corporate agenda truly the guardians of our historical legacy? Let us know what you think in the comments!

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Is Book Banning Illegal?

While there have been many legal battles over book censorship in schools on at local levels, the U.S. Supreme Court issues a noncommittal ruling in 1982 that continues to keep school and library books in unprotected from censorship.

A grayscale image of a large building with columns and a staircase leading to a courtyard

Source: Library of Congress

In Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico (1982), the Court deemed that “local school boards have broad discretion in the management of school affairs” and that discretion “must be exercised in a manner that comports with the transcendent imperatives of the First Amendment.”

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Who Decides What Books Stay?

In the end, your local and state governments have a say in what books get to sit on the shelves. Without specific guidance, school boards often make the decisions that prioritize “community values” first.

A row of books on a cart with a slip of paper reading BANNED in bold red letters

Source: Kennedy Library/Flickr

While most parents oppose book banning, many schools find themselves banning books due to parental fears, anxieties surrounding books on school shelves, and political pressure.

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