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The University Blacklist Course: A Model for Bringing Controversial Ideas to the Classroom

Higher education administrators, tasked with maintaining a school’s commitments to free expression, address everything from open inquiry protections to speech code reforms. Looking beyond policies, the task of fostering a campus culture which both celebrates viewpoint diversity and acknowledges our country’s history of censorship can be especially challenging, yet crucial to the health of academe.

From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the twentieth-century Hays Code, the suppression of unpopular speech and modes of thought is ingrained in the fabric of American society. This history cannot be ignored at colleges and universities, which are meant to teach their students the contexts from which intellectual traditions emerge and develop.

While our national discourse considers the novel First Amendment issues of the Digital Age, some of the most robust debate has focused on an old-fashioned form of censorship: book banning.

Suppressing the ideas and arguments within a book might seem archaic, but in 2018 the American Library Association reported challenges to 483 books, including popular titles like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. This kind of advocacy for censorship is not limited to the reading habits of elementary and secondary school students; lawmakers and school administrators have frequently taken measures to regulate what adult students read at colleges and universities.

But a deeper challenge for administrators arises when students themselves launch campaigns to censor or prohibit unpopular texts on campus, as they did in 2019 when underclassmen at Georgia Southern University torched copies of Jennine Capó Crucet’s bestselling Make Your Home Among Strangers on a charcoal grill. The incident was precipitated by a First Year Experience event at which Crucet argued with participants about white privilege and diversity.

Part of a university’s free expression goals routinely include building tolerance and endowing students with an ability to engage with perspectives different from their own.

In pursuit of this objective, professors at colleges and universities across the country have developed versions of a “university blacklist” course.

Teaching books and authors that have provoked censorship, sanitization, or de-platforming attempts, professors spotlight the tenets of intellectual freedom for a new crop of students. Engaging with controversial books and authors can be an ideal sparring ground on which students learn to grapple with unfamiliar or contentious ideas.

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The University Blacklist Course

The university blacklist course encourages students to engage directly with books that have provoked offense in the past or even in the present, and to learn to analyze the source of the text’s power. Generally, these courses fit into one of two categories, both of which capture a different lens through which we may consider censorship.

1. The Rhetorical Approach

Using the rhetorical approach, professors focus on the arguments of authors who have courted controversy in recent years. In 2018, two professors at Claremont McKenna College co-taught a seminar that took their students on a “stereotype-shattering journey through controversial opinions about some of society’s most emotionally charged issues.”

The class’ politically diverse group of students unpacked books on modern feminism, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and race in America. The books were selected from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s database of speaker disinvitations and disruptions on college campuses.

While the books themselves are not always the target of censorship, their authors have been the subject of protests, political suppression, or broad social condemnation. The professors of the blacklist course intentionally included works by media-savvy “trolls” whose ideas are not traditionally the subject of academic seminars , including Dangerous by Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannapoulos received a number of disinvitations from colleges at which he had been planning to speak, and several protests of his campus engagements turned violent.

Students learned to examine and critique the cogency of arguments with which they might not otherwise engage. CMC Senior Jennifer Gurev said reading authors like Yiannopoulos opened her eyes to the way college students often reflexively label thinkers as either “good” or “bad” without understanding their arguments. Students learn to approach controversial texts without preconceived judgements and develop greater capacity for critical thinking.

Classes utilizing this approach focus on comparing and contrasting authors across the ideological spectrum, providing a lens for viewing players and interests driving present-day politics.

Key questions asked of students include:

  • Whether or not they agree with an author and why.
  • Are critiques of the author founded or unfounded?
  • Is an argument or text ever “dangerous” enough to justify the use of censorship?
  • How does this text inform our understanding of modern American discourse?

2. The Literary Approach

A second approach to addressing censorship in the classroom focuses more explicitly on the literary and cultural value of books that have faced repeated censorship attempts throughout their histories. Such classes analyze books deemed too controversial or provocative for the classrooms and libraries of their time. These books frequently examined contentious contemporary ideas concerning political equality, sexuality, or religion, among other topics.

This course concept has been taught by professors at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Alabama, and the University of Washington. Classics like The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and Go Tell it On the Mountain by James Baldwin are among those included in the syllabi. Students learn about the historic, institutional, and social contexts in which these censorship controversies arose, as well as how artists have used their works to advance subversive themes and ideas.

Similar to the rhetorical approach, this type of course aims to challenge liberal mores along with more conservative ones. In 2011, a Seattle parent complained that Brave New World by Aldous Huxley had a “high volume of racially offensive derogatory language and misinformation on Native Americans” and lacked “literary value which is relevant to today’s contemporary multicultural society.” A later course on “Banned and Contested Literature” at the University of Washington included Brave New World on its list of possible texts for an individual project.

By spotlighting books which have had enough power to incite criticism from a spectrum of ideological positions, professors provide students with a more complete education in American sociopolitical culture.

Crucial questions for these classes include:

  • What is the author trying to say with this work?
  • Are there limits to what kinds of ideas students should be exposed to in the classroom?
  • Why was this book viewed as so challenging and threatening in its social and political moment?
  • How does provocative literature shape our understanding of the world?

An Academic Solution

In a campus free speech report for the American Enterprise Institute, higher education scholar Adam Kissel proposed that U.S. colleges and universities focus on curriculum reform and modeling free expression expectations in order to promote open free speech on campus. In recent years, blacklist courses have offered an academically rigorous response to such considerations.

At their core, the first-year writing seminars required at many public and private institutions are meant to teach students how to write. It may be the first time that students are explicitly taught the basics of cogent argument: how to write a thesis, to provide evidence, and to consider dissenting points of view. In an essay for Inside Higher Ed, John Duffy, O’Malley Director of the University Writing Program at the University of Notre Dame, wrote that when students learn to address counterarguments in the first-year writing seminar, “they practice the most radical and potentially transformative behavior of all; they sacrifice the consolations of certainty and expose themselves to the doubts and contradictions that adhere to every worthwhile question.”

To Duffy, this is the foundation of tolerance, a virtue which the university blacklist course is explicitly designed to promote. By reading works that exist outside the popular canon, students “consider seriously opinions, facts, or values that contradict their own,” and learn that tolerance doesn’t necessarily require a personal endorsement.

First-year programming can be uniquely helpful in reinforcing the university’s anti-censorship ideals among emerging scholars. In this regard, a first-year university blacklist seminar is a promising strategy for introducing students to important historical and cultural moments while priming them for deeper engagement in their upper-level studies.

In conceptualizing such a first-year course, curriculum committees might consider a university blacklist syllabus in which first-year students read works like Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? alongside Heather Mac Donald’s The War on Cops, Charles Murray’s Coming Apart with Robert Putnam’s Our Kids, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow alongside John F. Pfaff’s Locked In, or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin with Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

As John Shields, associate professor of government and the mind behind the CMC blacklist course has argued, such a class could ready students to effectively engage with a range of political, intellectual, and socially challenging issues, while guarding against reactionary censorship or dismissal of controversial ideas: “One thing about reading people is that it forces you to take them more seriously… Maybe Heather Mac Donald is wrong, even dangerously wrong, but it’s hard to walk away from a book and think, this is an utterly unserious person or a malicious person.”

Framed as a first-year writing seminar or general requirement, the first-year university blacklist seminar is an effective tool to expose students to challenging new ideas while modeling campus values of academic freedom and open expression.