May 5, 2024

Jan Resseger: How Book Bans, Threats to Honest Teaching of History, and “Don’t Say Gay” Bills Harm Our Children and Undermine Education for Citizenship

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Jan Resseger contemplates some of the damage done by culture panic. Reposted with permission. 

Public schools, which serve more than 50 million of our nation’s children and adolescents, are perhaps our society’s most important public institution. Unlike private schools, public schools guarantee acceptance for all children everywhere in the United States, and they protect the rights of all children by law. And unlike their private school counterparts, public schools are also required to provide services to meet each child’s educational needs, even children who are disabled or who are learning the English language.

Today’s culture war attacks on public education drive fear of “the other” and attempt to frighten parents about exposing their children to others who may come from other countries, from other cultures, from a different race or ethnicity, from a different religion, or from a gay or lesbian family.

The idea of insulating children is, however, counter to the whole philosophical tradition that is the foundation for our system of public schooling.

More than a century ago, education philosopher John Dewey declared: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself,” (The School and Society, p. 5)

For Dewey, however, educating all children together without insulating them was important as more than an abstract principle. Dewey believed that the experience of school was itself a way of learning to live in a broader community: “I believe that the school is primarily a social institution. Education being a social process, the school is simply that form of community life… I believe that much of present education fails because it neglects… the school as a form of community life… I believe that… the best and deepest moral training is precisely that which one gets through having to enter into proper relations with others in a unity of work and thought.” (My Pedagogic Creed, January 1897)

A hundred years later, in 1998, the political philosopher Benjamin Barber defended the idea of public schools as a microcosm of the community: “America is not a private club defined by one group’s historical hegemony. Consequently, multicultural education is not discretionary; it defines demographic and pedagogical necessity.  If we want youngsters from Los Angeles whose families speak more than 160 languages to be ‘Americans,’ we must first acknowledge their diversity and honor their distinctiveness.”( Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, p.231).

And in the same year, another philosopher of education, Walter Feinberg explained that in public school classrooms students should learn to tell their own stories, to listen and respect the stories of others, and through that process prepare for democratic citizenship: “That there is an ‘American story’ means not that there is one official understanding of the American experience but, rather, that those who are telling their versions of the story are doing so in order to contribute to better decision making on the part of the American nation and that they understand that they are part of those decisions. The concept is really ‘Americans’ stories.’” (Common Schools: Uncommon Identities, p. 232) (emphasis in the original)

Today, of course, the culture wars attacks on public education seek to reshape the curriculum, silence controversial discussion, and ban books.

Massachusetts political science professor Maurice Cunningham explains that well-funded advocates for reshaping school curricula—including the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Council for National Policy and a number of dark money groups—are spending millions of dollars to fan the fears of parents by supporting local advocates in organizations like Moms for Liberty and Parents Defending Education. The goal is to agitate against overly “woke” public school curricula and to frighten parents by telling them that teachers are frightening children by including the nation’s sins as well as our society’s virtues as part of the American history curriculum, and by encouraging children to listen to the voices of people who have traditionally been marginalized.  There is, however, no evidence that our children have been personally or collectively frightened when they learn about slavery as the cause of the Civil War or when they learn about gender identity as part of a high school human sexuality curriculum. Accurate and inclusive curricula and open class discussion where all voices are heard and considered are essential for truly public education.

Robert Samuels’ When Your Own Book Gets Caught Up in the Culture Wars profoundly explains the damage wrought by book banning, Samuels, a Washington Post reporter and his colleague Toluse Olorunnipa, had just won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction last fall when they were invited to a Memphis high school to discuss their new book, His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice.  Samuels describes why he wanted to share his book with the Memphis high school students: “I had once been told that the answer to anything could be found in a book… One day, during my senior year, I was browsing an airport bookstore when I saw Stokely Carmichael’s autobiography, “Ready for Revolution.” A whole chapter was devoted to Bronx (High School of) Science, which he had also attended. I was riveted. It started with an officer hassling him on the street, only to be stunned when Carmichael shows him a book with the school’s logo. Although our time there was separated by four decades, we both had the same confusion upon discovering that white classmates had grown up reading an entirely different set of material….  We were both surprised by how little dancing there was at white classmates’ parties. ‘It was at first a mild culture shock, but I adapted,’ he wrote. I, too, had to learn to adapt, to not be so self-conscious about getting stereotyped because of my speech, my clothes, my interests. It was the first time I had ever truly felt seen in a book that was not made for children.”

Samuels and Olorunnipa received a call just before their Memphis visit warning them they could not read from the book and that the school could not distribute copies to students. And during their visit, it became evident that students’ questions had even been carefully edited by their teachers.  Then, in the weeks after the visit, the Memphis-Shelby County school staff and event sponsoring organization stepped all over themselves trying to apologize to Samuels and Olorunnipa.  It became evident that school staff had been frightened and intimidated by school district regulations; the penalties were severe while the rules themselves remained unclear.

Samuels describes what happened: “(T)he spokesperson for the school district e-mailed… to apologize for the miscommunication and misinformation ‘surrounding your recent visit’… (She) defended prohibiting the book itself, on the ground that it was not appropriate for people under the age of eighteen… (She) then admitted that no one involved in the decision had actually read it. The district’s academic department didn’t have time… A staff person in the office searched for it in a library database, noting that the American Library Association had classified it as adult literature.” There was one positive result of the whole fiasco:  with a donation from Viking Books, the publisher, a Memphis community development group, promised any student from Whitehaven High School a free copy of His Name is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice.

Philosophers of education, academic researchers, educational psychologists, and the students in America’s classrooms all tell us that young people are hurt when the school is forced to remove the books that tell students’ own stories.

Young people are made invisible when state laws suppress accurate teaching about all the strands of the American story including slavery, and what happened during the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Movement. Children who are gay or lesbian learn that they should withdraw and hide when the words that describe them are banned. Experts also tell us that the other children in the classroom are not frightened when, for example, a classmate shares the challenges his or her family faced as immigrants trying to find a place to feel welcome.

A large body of education theory confirms that honest and accurate curricula and supportive, respectful classrooms create safe spaces where immigrant children, white children, Black children, Hispanic children, LGBTQ+ children, and children whose families practice different religions or no religion are able to be themselves. Such classrooms model the ideal of inclusive public schooling where children comfortably come together to see each other, hear other, respect each other, and learn how to be citizens of our diverse democracy.

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