O NCTE, NCTE, Wherefore Art Thou NCTE? [Update]

[UPDATE: Please see and support this open letter to NCTE Executive Committee.]

[UPDATE 2: NCTE Statement on the Doublespeak Award and Anti-Censorship Efforts.]

[UPDATE 3: Public statement from NCSS 8 February 2021: “Saving” American History? Start by Teaching American History]

I have been a literacy educator for 38 years and counting; throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I taught high school English in rural South Carolina, and then I moved to higher education in 2002, where I am in teacher education and teach first-year and upper-level writing.

Along with being a career educator, I am a writer. I can identify the beginning of my real life as a writer and scholar with three publications: first, Oregon English (published by a state affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of English [NCTE]) in 1989, and then English Journal (a flagship journal of NCTE) in 1991 and 1998.

When I made my move to higher education, I also began a twenty-year and counting relationship with NCTE that has been among the most rewarding elements of my career as teacher and writer/scholar.

While my colleagues and friends discovered through NCTE are too many to list here, at NCTE San Francisco (2003), I attended a presentation and met Ken Lindblom; we began talking, and eventually our connection led to my editing/co-editing a column in English Journal for 10 years under several editors (also counted among my friends and colleagues), including Ken.

In 2013, NCTE named me recipient of their George Orwell Award—one of the proudest moments of my career—acknowledging not only my work that spoke truth to power but highlighting the significance of my public work (blogging, which is often marginalized in academia). Then, after my work on the committee preparing for NCTE’s Centennial at the Chicago annual convention (2011), I served as the Council Historian from 2013-2015.

Until the interruptions of Covid, one of the highlights of each year included attending and presenting at NCTE’s annual conventions.

I share all this not to aggrandize myself, but to establish a fact of my life and career: I love NCTE and the people who have enriched my life because NCTE brought us together.

And thus, I write here in the spirit of James Baldwin: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually” (Notes of a Native Son).

Since I do love NCTE, and since I am troubled at this moment of literary and educational crisis, I feel obligated to criticize NCTE, asking, Wherefore art thou, NCTE?

Novices to Shakespeare often misread “wherefore” as simply “where,” but, of course, Juliet is asking “why” Romeo exists, specifically why is she being confronted with the challenge of Romeo’s family name.

Why, I am asking, does NCTE exist? And more pointedly, why is NCTE choosing silence, why is NCTE choosing to take a false apolitical pose—at this moment of literary and educational crisis?

First, let me stress the context of my question.

Across the U.S., Pollock and Rogers, et al., have authored a report from UCLA that analyses the wildfire spreading across the U.S.—curriculum, instruction, and book/text bans:

We found that at least 894 school districts, enrolling 17,743,850 students, or 35% of all K–12 students in the United States, have been impacted by local anti “CRT” efforts. Our survey and interviews demonstrate how such restriction efforts have been experienced inside schools as well as districts. We found that both state action and local activity have left many educators afraid to do their work.

(Pollock, & Rogers, et al., 2022, p. vi)

As I have been cataloging, censorship and even calls for book burnings are nearly a daily event into 2022.

Notable, these attacks on what and how teachers teach, on what and how students learn, are grounded in dishonest claims and misrepresentations, as the UCLA report notes:

We put “CRT” in quotation marks throughout this report because so often the conflict campaign’s definition of “CRT” (like its description of actual K–12 practice) is a caricatured distortion by loud opponents as self-appointed “experts.” The conflict campaign thrives on caricature — on often distorting altogether both scholarship and K–12 educators’ efforts at accurate and inclusive education, deeming it (and particularly K–12 efforts to discuss the full scope of racism in our nation) wholly inappropriate for school.

(Pollock, & Rogers, et al., 2022, p. vi)

The news reports are chilling: A teacher fired in Tennessee for teaching Ta-Nehisi Coates (a featured speaker at an annual NCTE convention); a superintendent of education in North Carolina banning a book from one parent complaint, and without reading the book; and high-profile coverage by NBC and The Atlantic detailing the magnitude of the censorship movement, which has included bans of one of the most celebrated graphic novels ever, Maus.

With that context in mind, I want to add I am guided by two more commitments.

Martin Luther King Jr., in Strength to Love (1963), warned: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.”

And Howard Zinn [1], whose work has been prominent at NCTE’s annual convention, who titled his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, argued:

This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order.

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train

As of today, I am deeply concerned that NCTE, as the premiere national professional organization for literacy and literature in the U.S., has chosen the path of neutrality, of silence, to strike an apolitical pose in order to avoid risk.

In November before the 2021 annual convention, I reached out to some leaders of NCTE and implored that NCTE take a leadership role in speaking out against the creeping threat of state legislation banning curriculum and the rising number of books being banned across the country.

Although I was assured this would happen, there has only been silence.

And then, this: Members of NCTE’s Public Language Awards Committee posted on social media that NCTE has put the Doublespeak Award on hiatus indefinitely in order to avoid looking “political.”

Some members have resigned in protest.

The disappointment and irony of this move is that the Doublespeak Award, a companion of the Orwell Award, is designed to offer an “ironic tribute to public speakers who have perpetuated language that is grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-centered.”

If you return to the report from UCLA, it is obvious we are in the midst of an educational and literary/literature crisis that screams for the Doublespeak Award (“[t]he conflict campaign thrives on caricature”), that demands public-facing, risk-embracing leadership from NCTE.

Why does NCTE exist, if not for this moment?

The current anti-CRT/book banning movement is politically partisan only because Republicans have chosen to make it so. And as King and Zinn noted throughout their careers, taking a neutral pose, pretending to be apolitical, is a political concession to support the status quo.

Since curriculum bans, book censorship, and parental oversight legislation are occurring exclusively among Republican-controlled states, the teachers and students impacted are mostly in right-to-work (non-union) situations; therefore, they are the most vulnerable, and most in need of advocacy from organizations and people with power.

NCTE is the collective voice of literacy educators, scholars, and creators.

I want to remain hopeful, but I am deeply disappointed and increasingly skeptical of that hope.

NCTE’s leaders must look in the mirror, ask “why,” and then act.

Returning to Baldwin, I end with this: “There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now” (Nobody Knows My Name).

[1] Trying to confirm if/when Zinn spoke at an annual NCTE convention [edit].