This year introduced several sweeping legislative efforts to restrict what is taught in schools: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently blocked an AP African American Studies class (which resulted in the College Board announcing revisions to the course), while Missouri took steps to ban what legislators called “divisive concepts.” The preceding year was also defined by increased efforts to ban books, forbid conversations about gender identity and homosexuality in schools, and eliminate history lessons that address the role of race in America. It’s almost impossible to talk about the state of education today without mentioning these trends.
In many cases, talking about complex topics helps to clarify them; however, despite ongoing debates and an overwhelming amount of media coverage, discourse surrounding these individual topics tends to further obscure the overarching issue: the consequences of censorship in schools.
It is well-documented that denying young people access to factual information can be detrimental to their mental health; similarly, minimizing certain perspectives, historical happenings, or lived experiences can harm students. It also makes them more susceptible to disinformation–unable to tell fact from fiction.
On the other hand, accurate, inclusive education benefits all students. It allows them to develop critical thinking skills, open their minds to different perspectives, and learn about aspects of history that have been traditionally ignored or misrepresented in the classroom. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, a global perspective will be critical to personal enrichment and professional success.
The Jed Foundation (JED) affirms that all students benefit from being taught accurate and consistent facts about history. Failure to do so can not only put their mental health at risk, but can be detrimental to the student body as a whole.
Why are topics banned in schools?
Certain topics are banned in schools due to a misunderstanding of what those topics are about, how they originated, and what they intend to achieve. In such cases, misinformation tends to fill in the gaps. In other cases, schools are answering a perceived desire from parents and caregivers to exert more control over what their children are learning about and how it might impact their values. Regardless of the motive, banning topics can play into preexisting fears and doubts, exacerbating a sense of foreboding around things that are unfamiliar or unknown.
Additionally, people are not aware of the harm that can be caused by failing to give students a complete and accurate set of facts in school. Ironically, because inaccurate information is often what drives censorship, these bans can be seen as perpetuating a cycle of ignorance. Having an incomplete or inaccurate set of information about the world can lead to anxiety, depression, and stress.
One particular instance of censorship that exemplifies this is the ongoing effort to ban critical race theory (CRT). This topic is widely misunderstood–and has become politicized as a result. CRT is a complex academic discipline that is reserved for collegiate-level discourse; it refers to the formal process of investigating systems and institutions for inherent racism and, if found, the process of seeking remedies for it.
There is little to no evidence showing that critical race theory is being “taught” in grades K-12. When CRT is mentioned in association with primary and secondary school education, the conversation is referencing recent efforts to provide a more accurate and inclusive education. Those efforts might include assessing whether any facts had previously been suppressed or perspectives downplayed, and then seeking remedies.
Why is this controversial? Some people insist that “CRT”–everything having to do with this discipline–is a deliberate effort to interject racial elements into conversations, content, and curricula where it previously didn’t exist; they believe that this is part of an “inherently divisive” agenda to emphasize the topic of race (at best) or to scold white people for their role in perpetuating racism (at worst). Because of this, critics now seek to eliminate any mention of race in the classroom. In Tennessee, that extends to any topics that make students feel “discomfort, guilt, or anguish.” Bans under this broad initiative have ranged from discussing the Black Lives Matter movement to teaching the history of slavery in America.
Today, “CRT” is also being used to describe school programs that promote diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism. This has led parents and lawmakers in nearly every state to fight against lessons on subjects even remotely related to racial inequality, injustice, or disparities—and, because of how insidious and wide-scale systemic injustices are in the United States, that means banned topics range from gun violence to student loan reform. As of 2022, lawmakers in 49 states have proposed or signed legislation to exclude those subjects entirely from educational content and classroom discussions. The nation’s history continues to be taught through a predominantly white lens.
These reactionary effects are cascading and cumulative; in addition to attempting to eliminate the topic of race from schools, lawmakers have doubled down on banning books and fought against welcoming any identity-affirming measures into curricula or onto school property.
Why is inclusive education important for youth mental health?
All students benefit from a diversified curriculum that is both objectively factual and accurate to their lived experiences. In particular, highlighting the experiences of marginalized communities promotes deeper social connection and understanding among young people of all backgrounds—and this connection plays a key role in mental health promotion and suicide prevention for all youths.
But students will not receive those benefits if their classes don’t reflect—or worse, actively ignore—the realities of lived experiences and world history. When school districts are prohibited from implementing programs that diversify the curriculum or teachers are reprimanded for holding space to discuss key social issues, it increases young people’s generational and ongoing trauma. They feel unseen, unacknowledged, and pushed to the margins; additionally, they come to believe that progress is a myth. This can lead to despair and depression and threaten their ability to thrive.
Additionally, educators worry that efforts to ban discussions about systemic racial inequality and other societal issues in classrooms will prevent robust conversations on important topics. It can also steer instructors away from mentioning race or sexuality at all, for fear they may be sued or fired. This can further alienate students, who may feel that their teachers are not trustworthy, which will prevent them from turning to those figures for help or guidance.
Black and LGBTQ youths are especially harmed by the increased focus on school censorship. For example, 41% of books banned between July 2021 and July 2022 included LGBTQ themes and characters, and the number of books with protagonists of color followed closely at 40%. Though these bans purported to protect students from inappropriate information, they only manage to do the opposite. School environments where students can discuss their experiences are essential to fostering feelings of safety, security, and self-worth.
The students of today are the clinicians, policymakers, educators, and parents of tomorrow. Instilling the tools needed to improve their emotional well-being and deepening their understanding of how systemic discrimination and prejudice function in health care, law, school, housing, and every other area of life will allow them to make better, more informed decisions and help create a more inclusive society.
Advocating for accurate lessons in schools
The Jed Foundation is committed to ensuring an equitable approach to suicide prevention, and that includes accounting for the effects of institutionalized racism and racial trauma. Any national mental health care plan that fails to consider racial identity and the effects of discrimination will not be effective at supporting Black youths the way it is needed right now. And it denies all students their right to a complete and accurate education in our schools.
JED emphasizes the need for inclusive education in schools, prioritizing a factual account of history, in order to best support all students.