Wed, May

These Are Not the Best of Times



SAY WHAT? - On the vital, longtime, increasingly bonkers battleground of culture wars that are our schools and our kids and what they can learn, it keeps getting worse. A new report finds wingnuts in calamitous power are begetting a flood of "educational gag orders" that are often sloppily written, factually inaccurate, vague enough to invite confusion if not egregious abuse, extreme enough to spark chaos, and "pedagogically pernicious," from banning ill-defined "divisive concepts" that cause "discomfort" to setting up a snitch line - cue helpful "tips" on Albus Dumbledore, creeping Sharia, teachers teaching and the terrorist group al-gebra - to report teachers "behaving objectionably." In the process, they chillingly create "an Orwellian hellscape" where teachers are treated "as subversive internal threats who must be zealously rooted out at any deviation from orthodoxy" - a toxic, growing trend, writes Greg Sargent, that can "make teachers feel on such thin ice they end up whitewashing the U.S. past rather than communicating hard truths about it." The new report from PEN America, which for over a year has been tracking "censorious legislative efforts" across the country, finds a "steep rise" in gag orders," with over 71 bills introduced in state legislatures, or about three a day. Most are about sex, race or U.S. history; like earlier ones, writes Jeffrey Sachs, "All are sweeping, all are draconian, and few make any kind of sense...This is about putting the fear of God into teachers."

Indiana is a prime, crazed example: Its 8 pending bills all target K-12; many mandate severe punishments for deviant teachers - from termination to being sued by parents - or schools, like loss of state funds or  massive fines. HB 1362 bans teachers from discussing sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin or “anti-American ideologies.” HB 1040 demands teachers "adopt a posture of impartiality" about historical events while also declaring Socialism, Marxism, communism or totalitarianism "incompatible" (with our) "principles of freedom." HB 1231 prohibits teachers from introducing "any controversial subject matter" beyond a topic or urging students to join a “political affiliation, ideology or sectarian (sic),” and permits a taxpayer - not even a parent - to “observe classroom instruction at any time." Here, as in multiple other states, there are also requirements for “transparency.” Other bills require schools to post titles/authors of curricula on a website, or provide copies if parents want their kids to opt out, or tell parents if their child displays signs of “gender nonconformity” or asks to join a club about “sexuality (or)  gender identity,” thus rendering the concept of "transparency" equivalent to "obliterating a child's right to any privacy whatsoever." "Even at the best of times, (these) provision(s) would be grounds for concern," writes Sachs. "These are not the best of times."

Between COVID and CRT, that ideological zealotry is regularly replicated by lone-wolf protesters - often orchestrated by far-right groups - like Heidi St. John, who at a "ReAwaken America"cabal - everyone got COVID, not anthrax - called public libraries "evil organizations" that push a trans agenda on kids. In Virginia, Amelia King was charged by police after she furiously threatened a school board she'd "bring every single gun loaded and ready" before she'd let her kids wear masks; she later clarified she "in no way meant..actual firearms (but) all resources I can muster." She's prob got the support of her "moderate" new GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who on his first day banned mask mandates - a move many districts and parents are fighting in court - and the teaching of "divisive concepts," which he failed to define, citing as an example CRT, which, again, isn't part of his or any other state's public school curriculum. Then Youngkin upped the autocratic ante, announcing his tip line - Tik Tok's on it - for patriots to report any teachers  "behaving objectionably": "We're asking folks to send us reports (to) help us be aware (of) their child being denied their rights...to make sure we're rooting it out." "Virginia is for lovers of the Stasi," noted Twitter, which wondered if there's a line to report officials acting like fascists. It could also be useful in Mississippi, where a state with the most violent racist history and the highest percentage of black residents is now barred from teaching why that is. When its Senate passed a bill banning CRT, all 14 black lawmakers walked out. "That nonsense wasn't worth our votes," said Sen. David Jordan, a former teacher and civil rights veteran descended from sharecroppers. Gatsby-like, he added, “We cannot continue to stumble into the future backwards.”

Hold my beer, says Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott, who's already passed a new-and-improved ban on CRT and mask mandates, just announced a Parent Bill of Rights to "help restore parents as the primary decision-makers of their child's education and healthcare decisions." He's also directed state education agencies to develop "standards" preventing “pornography and other obscene content” in schools after removing from school libraries two books, "Gender Queer: a Memoir and "In the Dream House," a "tour-de-force meditation on trauma (and) survival." Going full Stasi, he's sought criminal investigation of teachers who may have given "obscene" content to students; if convicted, they'll lose their credentials/benefits and go on a "do not hire" list. And he's joinedwitch hunt by a GOP fellow-obsessive who sent school districts a list of 850 books about race, gender and sexuality, asking where they are, what they cost, and what other books they have that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress,” like that felt when you realize your children's education is in the hands of Nazis. Speaking of, and adding to Texas' twisted prioirities, right-wing pundit and former Reagan Education Secretary William Bennett is on board with it all, wisely advising parents wary of uppity teachers to "not be intimidated by the cult of expertise." "When it comes to education of children," he says, "if you don't understand what they're talking about, you're probably right and they're probably wrong." He's especially incisive on CRT: “There’s something really bubbling up in this country now. Parents are wondering why would you not teach what is so obvious - that this is the greatest country on Earth?”

Finally, lest we forget, there's Florida, where Gov. Ron DeathSantis is just as busy fighting the teaching of America's racist past as common-sense COVID precautions while hawking bogus treatments for it. Having already banned CRT and signed a controversial Parents Bill of Rights, he's now pushing a bill to block public schools from making white students feel "discomfort" about race; he's also promoting a bill to let parents sue schools if they don’t like what their kids are taught about race and sure let's call it critical race theory though it isn't, and a bill to allow parents to scrutinize video recordings of their kids' classrooms to search for signs of “critical race theory," or at least intelligent life. And so it goes: The hysteria is working so well a fearful Florida school district just abruptly cancelled a professor's civil rights history seminar for teachers in case anything in it violated the ban's prohibition on "theories that distort historical events," like, say, arguing that America is founded on systemic racism in order to uphold white supremacy. In an email sent to teachers, the superintendent blathered about needing "an opportunity to review (it) in light of the current conversations about critical race theory," adding he was "mindful of the potential of negative distractions if we are not proactive in reviewing content and planning its presentation carefully,” which in English translates to, "We're terrified by all this fascist insanity, you win, we're folding." J. Michael Butler, who teaches history at Flagler College, was scheduled to give a lecture on "The Long Civil Rights Movement, arguing the movement long preceded and post-dated Martin Luther KIng. Clearly, it still does: Butler blasted "a climate of fear" created by DeSantis and his ilk that has "blurred the lines between scared and opportunistic." Tragically, he said, “The victims of this censorship are history and the truth."

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then - to learn...Look what a lot of things there are to learn." - T.H. White, "The Once and Future King."

(Abby Zimet has written Common Dream's Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, involved in women's, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues. )


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