Hypocrisy Is Winning

The same parents arguing that they should control what their children read and learn want to control what all children read and learn; they will not accord other parents the same rights they’re fighting for. That’s complete hypocrisy!

As a teacher, I have always supported parents who want to be involved in their own children’s education. When some of those parents expressed concerns over book choices and curriculum, I worked with them. I remember a parent’s apprehension over the suicides in Romeo and Juliet given the death of her son’s older brother by his own hand. I offered alternatives. In the end, however, assured that we would talk about the tragic foolhardiness of the two protagonists’ making such an irrevocable choice, she chose to let him participate and made sure to follow up with conversations at home. I felt good about that whole experience.

I do not support the banning of books and courses or the rewriting of books. I find the present push by parents and parent groups to make decisions not just for their own children but for everyone else’s children both unfathomable and unacceptable.  If teachers and schools afford those parents a role in their own students’ education, who are they to deny other parents the same option? Yet the current push to rewrite and/or forbid different works (and even entire courses, like Florida’s response to the AP course in African-American history) would deny others the very freedom those parents are seeking. That’s wrong.

Emily Style, founding Co-Director of the national SEED Project (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) describes curriculum as a window and a mirror: “education needs to enable the student to look through window frames in order to see the realities of others and into mirrors in order to see her/his own reality reflected. Knowledge of both types of framing is basic to a balanced education which is committed to affirming the essential dialectic between the self and the world” (wcwonline.org). While she supports parents’ involvement for their own children, she writes, “I draw the line, however, at their insisting that their values, which limit the perspectives their children can consider, must be universal. Parents who want their children to understand history as it really occurred should have equal rights” (nationalseedproject.org).

This push for censorship and control not only limits rights of families who think differently, but it cripples our ability to understand and learn. “The possibility of a more just future is at stake when book bans deny young people access to knowledge of the past” (theatlantic.com). Our students will face a global context; they will live and work with people of varied perspectives. Our nation needs these students to be better prepared for that context. The philosopher George Santayana wrote, ““Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If our youth study a fully sanitized history, how will they learn from the past in order to forge a better future? If any potentially offensive terms are cleansed from books, how will they fully understand the past? “With lessons from the past, we not only learn about ourselves and how we came to be, but also develop the ability to avoid mistakes and create better paths for our societies” (mooc.org).

Furthermore, this push to limit access to multiple perspectives and to address unsavory realities of our shared history comes from a minority of parents that would force their views on all others. A 2022 Harris poll showed just 12% of respondents wanted books on divisive topics banned, and upwards of 70% of Americans, including both Democrats and Republicans, oppose such bans (Time.com). “In the name of vindicating their ‘rights,’ parents with special interests are pursuing tactics that the overwhelming majority of parents and citizens reject” (Ibid.).

So will we continue to allow minority rule to limit our options?

These arguments apply not only to the choice and availability of books, but to the revision of books as well. Megan McCardle reminds us that the sanitized version of Shakespeare’s work by Thomas Bowdler, the version that removed all profanity, was for a time the best-selling version until people realized what great writing had been removed. She calls Inclusive Minds’ revisions of works by Roald Dahl “lobotomies”; instead, we should “give children a window into the real past, as the people living there saw it, rather than compress their reading material into an eternal now. If our moral ideas are so self-evidently correct (and to be clear, I think that in many cases they are), then it should be easy to train children to recognize the past’s mistakes” (washingtonpost.com). Washington Post books columnist Ron Charles acknowledges the value in Aunt Jemima’s syrup losing its racist icon and Dr. Seuss books losing offensive illustrations but writes, “The absolutist position against tinkering with dead authors’ works is generally the best one. And right-wing efforts to ban swaths of stories about Black Americans and LGBTQ+ people make all efforts to ‘fix’ literature sound sinister” (Washington Post Book Club newsletter 2.24.23). PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel warns that “[r)ewriting novels — like efforts to rewrite history — has origins in authoritarian playbooks. We need to learn from the perspective of the past, not eliminate viewpoints we no longer accept” (Ibid.). She urges us to support children’s development of autonomy and critical thinking, to help them test their own opinions and beliefs.

This concerted effort to cleanse both libraries and curricula along with individual books has librarians and educators fearful and uncertain. “Over the past three academic years, legislators in 45 states proposed 283 laws that either sought to restrict what teachers can say about race, racism and American history; to change how instructors can teach about gender identity, sexuality and LGBTQ issues; to boost parents’ rights over their children’s education; to limit students’ access to school libraries and books; to circumscribe the rights of transgender students; and/or to promote what legislators defined as a ‘patriotic’ education”[washingtonpost.com2). Teachers find themselves self-censoring and restricting what they say “about race and the darker parts of U.S. history” (Ibid.). At least 160 educators have already resigned or lost their jobs because of fights over the appropriateness of instruction on race, history or LGBTQ issues (washingtonpost3). Armed individuals terrorize school board meetings, while librarians face harassment and threats (Ibid.). Hannah Allen of The Washington Post warns:

The goal, extremism monitoring groups say, is to spread the ideology at the grass-roots level by taking on — or taking over — school boards, city councils, sheriff’s departments and other local institutions. In the case of libraries, they say, book bans are only a first step, followed now by legislation to weaken librarian control over collections, moves to strip libraries of legal protections and, in some examples, efforts to defund libraries altogether (Ibid.).

Adults who demand wholesale banning of books and rewriting of offensive passages in a desire to protect their own children cripple the learning of all children. Books like Maus, a graphic Holocaust novel that “show readers how personal prejudice can become the law. The irony is that in banning books that make them uncomfortable, adults are wielding their own prejudices as a weapon, and students will suffer for it” (theatlantic.com2). It is time for the rest of us to support not only the rights of these parents, but also our own. We must demand the same respect for our values that they demand for theirs and end this tyranny of the minority. Only then can we hope to raise enough citizens with an understanding of multiple perspectives and the chance to live well in an ever more diverse and challenging world.

A Brave New World?

Chat GPT concerns continue to escalate, and the industry is moving very quickly. Google is about to release Bard, its own AI chat, which Google will not only release to the public for free but also begin using to generate search results. Just today Microsoft “said it would ‘reimagine’ its Bing search engine with technology mirroring the model from ChatGPT creator OpenAI” [washingtonpost.com]. Even as articles warning of disaster from AI multiply, innovators are suggesting way to use AI productively. I will write more about this, but right now I feel an urgency about sharing a recent Washington Post article.

Entitled “Hide your books to avoid felony charges, Fla. Schools tell teachers” it describes the impact of Florida House Bill 1467, passed last July, which “mandates that schools’ books be age-appropriate, free from pornography and ‘suited to student needs’” [washingtonpost.com2]. The new law requires qualified school media specialists who have undergone a state training program to approve all books in the school library and in the classroom. Because that training didn’t occur until last month, the law’s impact is now causing teachers to strip their bookshelves of books or cover them with paper.  

Because an older Florida law makes the distribution of “harmful materials” to minors a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and up to a $5,000 fine, these new rules have a chilling effect on book selection and student access. A spokeswoman from the Florida Department of Education warned that teachers who violate the law may face penalties on their teaching certificates as well. And “because of uncertainties around enforcement and around what titles might become outlawed, school officials have warned teachers that their classroom libraries may expose them to the stiffest punishments” [Ibid.].

At least two counties, Manatee and Duval, have already directed teachers to remove or wrap up their classroom libraries. Many educators and teachers have expressed outrage. Students have shared their frustration as well. According to Broward School Board member Sarah Leonardi, Florida “is a state that seeks to limit access to knowledge and resources that don’t fit in a conservative ideological box. … It is a state that is making it more and more difficult to educate or parent a child without constant fear of retribution” [news4jax.com].

This initiative is chilling for so many reasons. As a teacher, I believe my responsibility is to develop critical thinking skills. How can students think critically if they aren’t exposed to multiple ideas? As an educator I feel great concern over the burnout and frustration of those currently in the classroom, especially when we already can’t fill all those shoes and when the pipeline of new teachers is grossly inadequate. How can we expect teachers to do their jobs well when we keep threatening them and questioning their professionalism? As a co-founder of my school district’s Gay Straight Alliances and of the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, I fear for the well-being of sexually minority youth when their resources are among those being removed. How will they manage without support?

I come to this with a clear bias. My parents allowed me to read anything as long as I would talk about it with them. When I outgrew the Cherry Ames series and other books in the children’s department of our library, they helped me get an adult card when I was still in grade school. I read Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy well before my teens. Was I traumatized? I was growing up during the panic over bomb shelters, and Shute’s novel gave me a way to discuss fear of the apocalypse with my parents. Saroyan fed my curiosity about the human condition and dealing with loss. And when I took a paperback considered racy back then [though pretty benign by today’s standards] on a sleepover and finished it that night, my girlfriend asked to read it. Her mother sent it back to my mother in a plain brown wrapper, clearly appalled. My mother’s reaction: “Everyone has to make their own decisions about what’s appropriate. You did nothing wrong, but she has every right to decide differently for her daughter.” I still support that vision.

As an English teacher, I always offered alternatives when parents expressed concerns, but I do believe that students should be exposed to a variety of ideas so they can make their own evaluations. Depriving students and teachers of books that foster critical thinking is backwards. I wonder how many of the books I so loved teaching, precisely because they challenged student’s understanding of the status quo and provoked thought and discussion, will pass the test in Florida. Will students miss books like Catcher in the Rye because of its profanity and references to sex? Or Lord of the Flies because it reveals undesirable human tendencies? Fahrenheit 451 or Animal Farm because they show the dangers of authoritarian governments? To Kill a Mockingbird because of its portrayal of systemic racism? Beloved or The Color Purple  because of the current backlash against “anti-racism”? How do we teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn responsibly without exploring Twain’s use of the n-word and whether his treatment of Jim is racist. Each of the books included above has been challenged repeatedly. Each of these books was also a critical piece of my curricula as I worked to help students explore and navigate a world bigger than the one they knew.

Banning books is not new. This level of control, however, frightens me. We cannot have an educated populace equipped to make good decisions and deal with the evolving challenges and changes in our country and in the world. These culture wars will destroy our culture if we don’t fight back.

Ray Bradbury Warned Us

I have always loved Ray Bradbury’s writing, both as a reader and as a teacher. His ability to create futuristic settings that accurately predict changes and their consequences – often painful consequences – has always provoked deep thought in both me and my students. I so loved teaching Fahrenheit 451, with its dire warnings ofthe potential impact of technology on free thought in the future. The protagonist’s wife wears thimble/seashell radios like today’s air pods and watches video on large parlor walls, realities today that were unforeseen by others in 1953. I always knew that his predictions proved uncannily accurate, but I never thought I’d see the book burning from Fahrenheit 451 come to pass now in our country. Sadly, it has.  

On November 8, 2021, when the Spotsylvania County Public School Board in Virginia  unanimously ordered its school libraries to begin removing “inappropriate” books, two board members, said they would like to see the removed books burned. One announced, “I think we should throw those books in a fire,” and another said he wants to “see the books before we burn them so we can identify within our community that we are eradicating this bad stuff” [time.com].

Since September, school libraries in at least seven states have removed books challenged by community members… Most of the challenged books so far, across fiction and non-fiction, are about race and LGBTQ identities [Ibid.].

The Executive Director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom warns that they are seeing “an unprecedented volume of challenges.” In twenty years of working for ALA, she “can’t recall a time when we had multiple challenges coming in on a daily basis” [Ibid.].

Challenges and book banning are not new. The vision that we should burn books and eliminate them from circulation, however, is. The culture wars that have been dividing this country have bred resistance to exposing readers to a range of ideas, especially about sexuality and race. “Schools around the country are scrutinizing and sometimes pulling books from the shelves, as backlash to stories centering on race, sex and queer identities becomes part of mainstream Republican politics” [WashPost]. It’s happening in Texas, where  Gov. Greg Abbott (R) “ramped up the rhetoric this week with orders for a statewide probe of potential ‘criminal activity’ surrounding ‘pornography’ in schools” [Ibid.]. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) seeks a similar investigation, and a Kansas school district temporarily froze library checkouts of 29 books after a parent complained before lifting the hold. [Ibid.] In Pennsylvania, a school district froze access to a long list of books and educational resources focused on people of color and anti-racism, including children’s picture books about civil rights icons Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr,” before critics convinced them to restore the books [Ibid.].

Bess Levin reminds us of the history of book burning: For those unaware of the historical precedents, book burnings have a long and dark history tied to censorship and oppressive regimes, most famously the one in Nazi Germany led by Adolf Hitler. In 1933, Nazis burned thousands of books deemed “un-German,” including the works of Jewish authors like Albert Einstein and those of “corrupting foreign influences” like Ernest Hemingway” [Vanity Fair].

Those who demand removal and even burning of books that show a different worldview from theirs would deprive their children – indeed all learners – of the chance to learn empathy and understanding, to explore worlds and situations different from what they already know. A high school English teacher in Spotsylvania offers a compelling argument against her school board’s decision. Christine Emba acknowledges that reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, one of the books under attack, made her very uncomfortable with its sex, violence, and mention of bestiality.

“It was a hard read. You felt bad. It was also an illuminating corrective, studied against the Virginia backdrop of Robert E. Lee worship, Stonewall Jackson fetishization, and the plantations where enslaved people, we heard in our history classes, worked mostly happily for noble, caring masters. The novel taught me the power of literature, how words could transmit deep emotion. It did keep me up at night, because I was grappling with the pain of another person, wondering how someone could get to such a place, how people could do these things to one another. The gory details of the book fled my mind in the ensuing years. But the feeling — I never forgot it” [WashPost]. She describes this battle over books as a “a referendum on empathy and responsibility. A vote on Americans’ duty to engage and bear witness to their country’s past, or on the “parental right” to continue to turn a blind eye and make sure that children do, too” [Ibid.].

Don’t we want learners to grapple with the human condition and to appreciate the power of literature to illuminate it? Book burning is the enemy of freedom of thought, and its current popularity scares me. I don’t want this prediction of Bradbury’s to thrive in this country.