The Revolutionary War had just ended, but Thomas Jefferson was worried. American democracy would not survive, he warned, without an educated citizenry. So, he and other Founding Fathers established one of the world’s first broad-based, tax-supported school systems.
We’ve been fighting about it ever since.
For the past two centuries, public schools have been battlegrounds over immigration, women’s education, the theory of evolution, racial segregation, prayer, guns, lunch, dress, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Now there’s a new battle raging. It could be the biggest yet.
The political right has launched a campaign to gain control of public school curricula and, in effect, American history. Some two dozen Republican-led state legislatures this year have passed laws to limit, in one way or another, the teaching of such subjects as slavery, race, gender and other topics deemed too “sensitive” to entrust with professional educators.
In Texas, for instance, lessons on current or historical events must now include “both sides” of any potentially controversial issue. At least one Texas curriculum director says the rule even covers the Holocaust. (Hard to imagine what the other side of that one might be.)
Meanwhile, Republican operatives are using dark money from big donors to set up what look like grassroots parents’ organizations. These groups are fielding right-wing candidates in local school board elections, disrupting board meetings and even harassing school officials at their homes (though not yet, mercifully, in the Berkshires). The National School Boards Association has called this behavior “domestic terrorism.” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has asked the FBI to investigate.
The parents’ groups say they have a right — as they do — to organize and to weigh in on important school issues like mask mandates, sex education and the alleged teaching of critical race theory. That method of analysis is taught at the university level but not at any K through 12 schools. Republicans have nonetheless adopted the term to cover a range of topics related to race, gender, inequality and other inflammatory subjects they fear are being pushed on kids by leftist educators.
So what? Curriculum controversies are as American as school shooting drills. Every year, the 13,000 or so school districts in the U.S. ban vast numbers of books as offensive, mostly to parents. The American Library Association publishes an annual ranking of these titles. Such classics as Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” and Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” are perennial offenders.
What’s different this time is the political context. Since losing the presidency and both houses of Congress last year, Republicans have pretty much turned the Grand Old Party into a troll farm to test the electoral appeal of potential hot-button issues.
Thus, the recent obsessions with critical race theory, followed by vaccination and masking rules, the role of supplemental jobless benefits in causing the recent labor shortage (not large, it turns out) and the current kerfuffle over shortages and delivery delays of certain manufactured goods.
It’s hard to get folks riled up about the fine points of supply chain management, so pushing “parental rights” seems more likely to mobilize the GOP base and reverse the party’s relative weakness among suburban women, young parents and other swing voters.
So far, the parental rights controversy seems to be working well for Republicans. Polls on the topic are few, but broadly worded questions about the right of parents to make decisions regarding their children have strong support. In the close race for next month’s Virginia governor’s election, school control has become a powerful issue for the GOP candidate. Expect to see it used elsewhere.
That would be a tragedy. Politicizing schools is what dictators do. Indeed, when my wife and I taught at a Chinese university a few years ago, we were astonished to find that our impressively bright students were appallingly ignorant of events in their own country’s recent history, like Great Famine of 1959-61 and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. In China, school curricula have long been purged of such embarrassments.
Do we really want our kids to learn only a sanitized, party-approved version of their country’s past — and its present? How can they act as the informed citizenry of Jefferson’s dream if they’re prevented from knowing the whole story of America, including the uncomfortable parts?
You’re no doubt familiar with the oft-repeated quote from American historian George Santayana (paraphrasing Britain’s Edmund Burke) about how those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it. Jefferson had an equally pertinent observation: “If a nation expects it can be both ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.”