A Response to NCTE Statement on the Doublespeak Award and Anti-Censorship Efforts

Today is 8 February 2022. One year ago today the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) released a pointed and powerful statement: “Saving” American History? Start by Teaching American History.

This public statement by NCSS was bold and proved the organization was willing to place professional commitments to the fields of history and social studies over the fear of taking so-called “political” risks.

Labeled “A Current Events Response,” the statement begins: “National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), the largest professional association in the country devoted solely to social studies education, strongly rejects the recent development of proposed bills in state legislatures which are designed to censor specific curricular resources from being used for instruction in K-12 schools.”

On 7 February 2022, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) released NCTE Statement on the Doublespeak Award and Anti-Censorship Efforts, a reaction to a series of concerns raised by former members of NCTE’s Public Language Awards Committee and others (including my blog post and an Open Letter now soliciting signatures of support).

After I posted my blog raising concerns about NCTE’s silence and inaction during the rise of book/text and curriculum censorship as well as the controversy over putting the Doublespeak Award on hiatus (resulting in some committee members resigning), I have heard from many NCTE members, former NCTE members, and even past presidents of NCTE—all agreeing with the concerns being raised.

In the context of NCSS’s direct and early response, I want to address a few of the points in NCTE’s statement from 7 February 2022, a year after NCSS’s public stance.

First, this statement is a reaction to criticism, not a proactive stance against book/text and curriculum censorship. Others and I have been calling for proactive and public statements.

Second, the statement, ironically in the context of the Doublespeak and Orwell Awards, seems to be massaging if not rewriting the history of putting the Doublespeak Award on hiatus; I am not aware of a single person claiming NCTE “canceled” the award (their first bullet point). The concern was clearly that the hiatus seems to have been an effort to avoid making NCTE look “political,” again an ironic context given the awards.

Next, the statement feels to many of us as an unfair framing of the committee members who resigned on principle; we do not have to agree with those members (I do), but I think we must respect the professional ethics involved in resigning.

Ideally, NCTE would have better served the Council by simply admitting that the hiatus and how it occurred was a mistake that would be corrected—instead of putting so much focus on the principled committee members.

Finally, I want to address a comment in the statement’s penultimate paragraph: “We want NCTE members to know—NCTE has not remained on the sidelines in regard to intellectual freedom and censorship matters, and has no intention of doing so in the future.”

Let me be very clear again: I deeply respect and appreciate my colleagues who signed the statement as the faces and names of leadership for NCTE; however, I respectfully disagree and think the statement as a reaction to criticism and the continued lack of a public statement similar to NCSS (a year later) are proof that NCTE leadership continues to fail the larger fields of literacy and literature, students across the U.S., and all teachers of English/ELA.

Yes, as some NCTE members have noted on social media, NCTE has been a stellar organization inwardly with powerful position statements and a diversity-rich 2021 annual convention. But that serves and speaks to a very small fraction of teachers of English/ELA—and likely has no impact on public opinion/discourse or political policy.

NCTE needs to back up and re-address the Doublespeak mistake again, but also, NCTE must acknowledge the larger concern about remaining on the sidelines because that is where the organization is while our classrooms are being dismantled and our professions are being destroyed.

Many NCTE members are frustrated because NCTE has a powerful infrastructure to speak Truth to power the way NCSS did. Currently, we are in the final days of members voting on a new and important resolution: Resolution on Supporting Educators’ Right and Responsibilities to Engage in Antiracist Teaching.

But what good is all this if NCTE keeps the work inward and refuses to take the principled stands needed to change the public and political narratives about books, texts, and curriculum?

Laws are being passed; books are being removed from classrooms, school libraries, and public libraries because of the complaint of a single parent; teachers are being fired; and board members have called for book burnings.

If you Google “governor” and “pornography” today, you do not find articles on scandal but dozens of media articles on multiple governors across the U.S. (Texas and South Carolina, notably) calling award-winning literature “pornography.”

And as the report from UCLA clearly notes, the anti-CRT movement is itself an Orwellian attack on facts as well as teaching and learning:

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)

Pollock, M., & Rogers, J., et al. (2022, January). The conflict campaign: Exploring local Experiences of the campaign to ban “Critical Race Theory” in public K-12 education in the U.S., 2020-2021. UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access. https://idea.gseis.ucla.edu/publications/the-conflict-campaign/

Regretfully, 2021 and now 2022 are demanding principled stands such as the Doublespeak and Orwell Awards from NCTE; but students, teachers, literacy, and literature need NCTE to take a principled stand beyond the NCTE bubble.

Many of us remain concerned that NCTE is content with being reactionary and, yes, there on the sidelines.