We have rating systems for movies, television shows, and video games—so why not rating systems for books? That's the thought behind services that rate books with the aim of helping parents and protecting children. But these services are contributing to censorship in schools—and harming public education in the process.
When many of us think of books being banned or challenged in schools, we may think of evangelical Christian objections to Harry Potter or parental panic over nudity in Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen. But there is a small industry that feeds parents' anxiety over the content of their children's reading material: book ratings.
Now, when we talk about book ratings, we're not talking about reviews of books or qualitative discussions of their content. We're talking about rating systems like that of Common Sense Media, which scores books based on things like educational value, role models, violence, sex, and profanity and then assigns them an age rating.
While Common Sense Media touts on its website that, "We believe in sanity, not censorship," the National Coalition Against Censorship has found that such rating systems do, in fact, contribute to censorship in public schools. "I think [book rating]'s commonly written about as the 'helicopter parenting' phenomenon and that's fairly well recognized," NCAC Executive Director Joan E. Bertin told us. "I think the piece that people have missed is the way in which it's playing itself out in kids' educational experiences, with parents second-guessing teachers and taking the position that kids should be sheltered from everything, including the content of books that might be disturbing."
NCAC is opposed to broad rating systems for all media, calling for more qualitative review systems. "What Common Sense Media and these other sites have done is flag these as problematic areas and therefore create the message that if you're a good parent, you really shouldn't let your kids see this stuff. It's like a scarlet letter," says Bertin. Different parents may have different views on whether and in what context their kids should be reading about sex, profanity, and the human capacity for violence, but rating services tend to boil content down into overly simplified categories, with bullet points that can at times read less as thoughtful dissection of the texts than as a warning to parents.
NCAC is hardly alone in their criticism of these rating systems. They've joined with other organizations, including but not limited to the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom, National Council of Teachers of English, Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators, and the Authors Guild to protest the way Common Sense Media rates books.
While the goals of sites like Common Sense Media (it's hardly the only rating site out there, but it's large, well funded, and even has an endorsement from President Obama) may be noble ones—making parents' and children's lives easier—these rating systems can and do contribute to censorship in schools. "We know that people check these sites and refer to them as authoritative when they complain about books," explains Bertin. "I think there are probably some teachers and librarians who check them to see whether, if they assign a particular book, it's going to be problematic, whether they're going to get complaints, because they know parents will be checking them. It is definitely playing a role, and I think the most insidious element of it is the decontextualization and the stigmatizing of certain types of content."
When you look at the organizations backing Common Sense Media, it's hard to imagine they actually want to see books censored in schools. According to its 2011 annual report, the non-profit received 38 percent of its revenue in 2010 from grants, and its list of foundation supporters is a veritable who's who of do-gooding charitable organizations. So why do they put their money into a media rating service?
"Protecting children is a very easy sell," says Bertin, "and it makes everyone feel virtuous. And from where we sit, as we always say, we see censorship coming from the left, right, and middle. But on the left, people don't tend to see censorship that's coming from the left. And many of the foundations that fund this stuff are left-oriented, shall we say, progressive oriented. And nobody objects to the idea of making children's lives better! The question is how you do that. This has been packaged as, 'Let's make children's lives better.' We don't think it's making children's lives better. In fact, we certainly think it's making their education worse."
And while Common Sense Media is a non-profit, it's still a business. They refer to themselves as "venture philanthropists," earning 40 percent of their 2010 revenue through fees and services. Part of their business model involves licensing their ratings to media companies like Netflix, Comcast, and Amazon. What this means is the CSM is looking to proliferate its particular ratings style—and point of view—across various consumer platforms, making them visible as a cultural standard even to parents who don't check the CSM website itself.
Many parents swear by ratings sites like Common Sense Media as a way to quickly and easily evaluate their kids' media, and it certainly makes sense that parents want some kind of content guideline. But book ratings can also stir up a sense of parental anxiety, encouraging a culture where are parents expected to agonize over every reading choice—and second-guess teachers and librarians whose personal evaluations don't match up to these subjective ratings. And that's the major issue with these rating systems: not that people use them to guide their own children's reading habits, but that they use them as ammunition to interfere with the public education of other children.
"If you say, 'Look, this is not to my taste,' or 'I don't think this would be good for my child,' fine," notes Bertin. "Nobody is objecting to that. And there are all kinds of resources to find out what a particular video game or book or movie or whatever contains that allow people to make these judgments for themselves. And that's the way it's supposed to be. It's when it gets culturally institutionalized as a standard of behavior for parents that I think it becomes a much bigger problem."