“The Woods Are Burning”: If Not Unprecedented, Urgent Times for Education

“I’m not interested in stories about the past or any crap of that kind because the woods are burning, boys, you understand? There’s a big blaze going all around …” — Willy Loman

Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller

Especially when discussing education, I am deeply skeptical of crisis rhetoric, and I absolutely reject ignoring the importance of historical context.

So during a debate about the obligation of organizations to speak publicly against the rising firestorm of curriculum and book/text bans, I felt compelled to call the current anti-CRT mania “unprecedented,” [1] but that feels as if it breaks my two concerns above—suggesting crisis and failing to note that any moment in history is essentially unprecedented.

In A Long Way Together, a history of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), J.N. Hook documents NCTE’s response to the McCarthy Era, when “McCarthy’s unscrupulous tactics attempted to ban school use of books that were at all liberal politically, liberal very often being equated with factual” (p. 169). As a response, NCTE published “Censorship and Controversy, a fifty-six-page pamphlet … presented to the membership at the 1953 convention” (p. 169).

How aggressively did NCTE take this work to the public? Was there media coverage in the mid-1950s of NCTE rejecting this wave of censorship? Did NCTE lobby legislators? To these questions, Hook does not speak; therefore, we may be faced with the reality that even during the Red Scare, NCTE remained mostly inward in their efforts to challenge censorship—a powerful pamphlet at an annual convention.

And McCarthy’s tactics above certainly sound very similar to the weaponizing of false claims about CRT in order to control and ban “liberal” teaching and texts in U.S. schools.

Adam Laats, as well, documents that curriculum and book/text banning plus bills granting parents dramatic control over schools fits into a long history of this over-reach:

For a full century now, conservative politicians have attacked teachers to score easy political points. This, despite the fact that teachers, as a group, tend to consider themselves “moderate” (43 percent) or even “conservative” (27 percent), and their political views have long tended to match those of their local communities. Nevertheless, scare tactics about subversive teachers have been too tempting for politicians to resist. But although targeting teachers might score a short-term payoff at the ballot box, those attacks have always harmed public schools by driving teachers away.

How Picking On Teachers Became an American Tradition

So if the fire raging around education today is not unprecedented, I am convinced it is urgent—and potentially catastrophic.

2022 is not 1953, and the connected world of social media, in my opinion, allow any person or organization with power to create a public voice for or against causes that matter to that person or organization.

Words matter, but words must be followed by action. And where there are no words, we must be suspicious there is no action.

According to a report from UCLA, at least 4 in 10 students in the U.S. are being negatively impacted by anti-CRT legislation and book/text bans. This is likely a low estimate, and certainly will grow, as this stunning list of such legislation documents.

Vague and sweeping language in passed and proposed legislation is already creating a chilling effect for teachers and students alike.

While Tennessee continues its assault by banning books, and Florida joins the move to wipe classrooms clean of discomfort, all of us with individual or collective voices are confronted with our own self-censorship.

Will we speak, will we act.

Before it is too late.

The 451 App (22 August 2022)

[1] From Toni Morrison novel The Bluest Eye off banned list in St Louis schools:

According to the American Library Association, which monitors challenges to books, calls for bans are increasing.

“It’s a volume of challenges I’ve never seen in my time at the ALA – the last 20 years,” the director of the ALA office of intellectual freedom, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, told the Guardian in November.

“We’ve never had a time when we’ve gotten four or five reports a day for days on end, sometimes as many as eight in a day.

Toni Morrison novel The Bluest Eye off banned list in St Louis schools

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