A simple fix for Internet censorship in schools

March 26, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

Schools and libraries are hurting students by setting up heavy-handed Web filtering software that block access to potentially educational sites. Instead, educators should trust teachers and librarians to oversee schools Internet access, says Craig Cunningham, a professor at National-Louis University.

Web filtering software should be configured so that, when a student stumbles across a site that's blocked, the teacher or librarian can make a judgment whether the content is appropriate for study, and if it is, the teacher or librarian can let the site through. (Disclaimer.)

"If a student tries to show something that's part of a presentation and it's blocked, the teacher types a password and everyone sees it," Cunningham said. "Why should teachers not be in charge of what to teach?"

For examples of how heavy-handed Web filtering software harms education, see my post earlier today, "How Internet censorship harms schools." Also, read the post I wrote that started the discussion: "Internet filtering as a form of soft censorship."

Ultimately, the purpose of schools should be to teach students to live in a democratic society, and that means teaching critical thinking and showing students controversial Web sites, Cunningham said. That includes sites that Web filters might classify as hate speech, or sites discussing same-sex marriage -- both for and against. Students need to access this information under the guidance of teachers and librarians, in the process of learning how to think about these issues.

The alternative is using schools as a means of indoctrinating students with social norms as defined by parents and the local community.

"Should students prepare schools to think ike their parents do?" Cunningham said. "My response is no. The purpose of K-12 education should be to open up kids' minds to other ways of thinking. One of the hallmarks of democracy is opening people up to other points of view and not denouncing them as evil. The idea that two people can have two different conclusions from observing the same phenomenon, without any of them being more right than the other, that's a difficult thing for a lot of people to handle."

I asked Cunningham: If parents don't decide how their own children should be educated, then who does? He responded, "That education that the best and wisest parents want for their children should be the education available to all."

But who decides what's the best and parents want for their children? That's something society needs to work out through discussion and debate, Cunningham said. He said he favors a national educational curriculum as practiced by other countries, including England, France, and Korea.

Cunningham cited the example of a small town in Kansas that's all white, and all Christian, and all Republican, where students need to be exposed to alternate viewpoints. "In that small town, there's going to be one kid who's different. And who does that kid turn to if not teachers? If they can't turn to the teachers, they turn to the Internet," he said.

He added, "Everybody should be thinking about the balance between exploration and safety, but they shouldn't always fall down on the side of safety. Because there is a trade-off."

I work as Internet Marketing Director for Palisade Systems, which provides a network security appliance and service that includes Web filtering.