Category Archives: indoctrination

Thoughts from Driving Cross-Country in 2022: Kansas

I am not in Kansas
I can't slow down and I can't stand it
Broadcast News into Hallelujah
Hanne Darboven had a great idea
Make a list, write it down
Shave your head, draw a crown
Move back home with mom and dad
The pool is drained and they're not there
My bedroom is a stranger's gun room
Ohio's in a downward spiral
I can't go back there anymore
Since alt-right opium went viral

"Not in Kansas," The National

This was going to be a different blog post. In early July and then again in early August, I drove cross country—from SC to CO and then back.

This drive crosses for significant stretches Kansas and Missouri. And driving for hours along Interstate 70 in those states is a vivid and disturbing snapshot of the U.S.A. in 2022.

After posting about driving to OH and back, I had begun to think even more deeply about the current political state of the union. We are not a country divided by Right v. Left or Republican v. Democrat.

The division involves those of us who favor community and those who are seeking authoritarianism. I was motivated to continue this idea after seeing a Tweet from Allison Gaines:

I agree with her, and I think that poll captures the divide I identified above; non-religious and Jewish people have chosen community, and Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons have chosen authoritarianism.

The problem is that these ideologies are being leveraged in our political system. The very real and immediate danger is that those seeking authoritarianism are using government to impose those ideologies onto everyone—and they are winning. Those seeking community—people who believe democracy is a way to provide everyone space to live freely in ways that are diverse and not mandated by an authority—are losing. Badly.


As I wrote in my post on provincialism, you can learn a lot about how people think by the billboards (professional and homemade) that line our highways.

Kansas and Missouri billboards tell you that you are in Trump Country, that you are surely going to hell, that we are baby killers, that being gay or trans is a ticket to hell, that pornography is killing us.

Those billboards also tell you to follow and trust in Jesus—and “every glock is in stock.”

God. Country. Family. Guns.

I was driving just before Kansas voters were going to polls to amend their constitution. Like many other states, Kansas was attempting to further restrict access to abortion. The campaigns, advertising, and signs along the interstate were a garbled mess of misinformation and scare tactics.

Lots of Jesus. Lots of Hell. Lots of babies.

During the drive, I would have guaranteed another state was turning against women.

And then, hope?

Kansas voters chose to maintain the right to abortion in their state constitution by a significant majority.

One of the most troubling aspects of the push to ban abortion and the success in overturning Roe V. Wade is that polls overwhelmingly show a solid majority—about 2/3 of Americans—support the right to abortion.

None the less, the minority view that all abortion must be banned is winning. The political system in the U.S. is not a democracy, not a voice of the majority and not a mechanism for protecting the rights of minorities.

Our government is firmly the tool of conservatives. Republicans dominate state governments and use that power to ban, censor, and remove freedoms that have been painstakingly gained over decades of progressive efforts.


And here is the essential problem with authoritarian ideology:

No one loses anything because other consenting adults have different ways of being sexual, of expressing gender, but this parent is offended by “normalizing” even after reading a book and finding it “filled with ‘kindness and caring.'”

The authoritarian urge is mainly among white religious people who are essentially fundamentalist in their beliefs. For fundamentalists (I was born and have lived my entire life in the fundamentalist South), their beliefs and ways of living are not simply how they want to live; they are not seeking a country that allows them the freedom to believe and live as they choose.

Fundamentalists see it as their sacred duty to God to impose their beliefs on everyone else. Fundamentalists have missionary zeal, the arrogance of thinking their beliefs are not just right for them, but right for you (and you may not even know it!).

This is why Republicans and conservatives are banning books and censoring curriculum and instruction in schools. Republicans and conservatives are not trying to fight indoctrination; they are demanding that only they have the power to indoctrinate.

Republicans are afraid of books, history, ideas, and diversity even when none of these materially take anything away from them, when none of these are using the power of government and law to deny people their own freedoms and choices.

We on the left are materially afraid of gun violence, police killing people before they can be proven guilty or innocent, pandemics, laws denying women body autonomy, and literally losing our freedoms because of laws passed exclusively by Republicans (abortion bans, anti-CRT laws, book bans, etc.).


And that is what this blog post was originally about—false equivalence.

Every day our mainstream media—demonized by the Right as liberal—feeds us the false “both sides” narrative that suggests using government to ban abortion, censor what students can be taught, and erase freedoms gained is somehow the same as protesting abortion bans and curriculum gag orders, somehow the same as calling for expanding freedoms and rights for all regardless of race, beliefs, sexuality, gender, etc.

Authoritarian power grabs of the government are in no way the same as using democracy to create a more perfect union that allows individual and consensual freedom for everyone.

As my post on driving to OH examined, this remains a problem of rural v. urban.

Driving across rural Kansas and Missouri is a disturbing harbinger of the country the authoritarian right wants, that the authoritarian right is actively building.

God. Country. Family. Guns.

Mass shootings? No problem.

School shootings? Just the cost of the Second Amendment.

The world view of fundamentalist religious Americans lacks logic, is absent coherence, and is built on lies.


Back in SC, I am not in Kansas.

But I am well aware that the fundamentalism and authoritarianism of my home state is not unique, not simply a feature of the South.

Rural America is determined to control us all, determine to mandate what counts for everyone’s life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

That is not America, at least not the ideal we were raised to believe.

I am afraid that it is too late.

Should the vote in Kansas give us hope?

Maybe, but hope means nothing without action.

And for now, the authoritarians are the ones willing to make their world happen.

What are we willing to do for each other?

For everyone?

For anyone?

What You Should Learn in the Classroom about Expressing Your Opinion (Especially in College)

Watershed moments in your life can be exaggerated I am sure through the lens of memory, but I have a vivid recollection of one such moment in my 10th-grade English class with Mr. Harrill.

English throughout junior high had been a series of grammar book exercises and what felt like an entire year of sentence diagramming in 9th grade. Then one day in Mr. Harrill’s class we had a full-class discussion.

Except for the weekly tedium of vocabulary tests, Mr. Harrill taught us that English class was about reading, writing, and thinking—often aloud. In other words, English became a place where we all explored ideas as a community in order to shape our own views of the world around us.

One day Mr. Harrill was being observed by the principal, Mr. Simpkins (his two sons, one a year ahead and one a year behind me, were friends), who just about 8 years later would be my principal as I took Mr. Harrill’s position and entered that same room as a high school English teacher.

The class quickly slipped into debate (I am not sure that was Mr. Harrill’s lesson plan) about whether or not we would serve in war if drafted. The class quickly divided into two camps—all the boys except me proclaimed their patriotic zeal for serving while I joined the girls in saying I would not serve because I rejected the concept of war.

Years later when I interviewed with Mr. Simpkins, he recalled that day, and pushed me on whether or not I was serious (Mr. Harrill had apparently explained after that class that I was prone to being the devil’s advocate in the class).

One of Mr. Harrill’s many gifts as a teacher was his ability to instill in us both passion for ideas and words as well as a sense of community; we listened and we shared. I genuinely don’t recall anyone being inappropriately upset even though I recall many of us being uncomfortable.

Another lesson came in college—where professors and classmates were incredibly smart, where professors began to define boundaries for sharing our comments in informed and credible ways.

The best thing about college for me was learning to listen and recognizing that being smart was mostly about stepping back, acknowledging your assumptions, and then moving forward grounded in evidence. Honestly, despite the popular narrative that being an English major is a wasted major, I learned much of this through the demands of literary analysis.

In short, don’t say something about a text unless you can ground your comments in the actual text.

Being a student was such a vibrant and important experience for me, I became an English teacher. As I noted above, I entered my old English classroom as the teacher in the fall of 1984 (an ominous year it seems now in the current climate of educational gag orders).

For 18 years, I committed myself to providing the same sort of experiences for my students that Mr. Harrill gave to me; it was a gift and I was determined to pay it forward.

Classes were discussion-based and my students wrote a tremendous amount. English was about ideas, and the focus was teaching my students in ways that helped them become the people they wanted to be.

Many class sessions were uncomfortable, even tense, because we confronted race/racism and religion quite often—among the many complex topics raised over and over in literature.

Students were often frustrated at each other, and several were deeply frustrated with me.

But we were a community, and my students learned the boundaries of academic discussion much earlier than I did. For many years, I had former students reach out from college to thank me for my classes and those lessons (often about their ability to write, but that was also about their ability to think in informed and complex ways).

I have now been teaching at a selective university for twenty years, since the fall of 2002.

One of the hardest parts of that transition is that my university students are very quiet; classroom discussions have often paled when compared to my own experiences as a student and my 18 years teaching high school English.

That dynamic was very frustrating in my first years so I began collecting anonymous survey about student attitudes surrounding talking aloud in class.

Consistently for many semesters, I found a pattern. Students did not like to speak aloud in class for a few reasons: (1) Not wanting to be “wrong” in front of peers, (2) not wanting to be “wrong” in front of the professor, and (3) not wanting to “give away” knowledge to peers who hadn’t done the reading.

What I must stress is that the survey and discussions about that feedback were very clear that the hesitations about talking in class have been academic, not ideological. Students are quiet because of their fear of being graded, evaluated, not because they felt they were being ideologically silenced.

In fact, student feedback I receive regularly describes my class as a safe space to express student views. But students also recognize that our classes are spaces where evidence and awareness are expected.

Since I teach first-year students and several introductory class, we often explore what students should avoid expressing aloud in terms of eroding their credibility (not in terms of hiding their ideologies).

For example, I just explained to a student about the problems behind the term “hysterical,” and cautioned them to stop using the word now that they are better informed.

Learning to be careful with language is not censorship or being cancelled; learning to be careful with language is a part of being an educated and ethical human.

The standards for discussion are much higher in the classroom than among friends at the bar, or even for presidential debates. Claims must be supported in the classroom.

And of course, this is a long and winding way to confront the recent Op-Ed in the New York Times and then referenced in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The commentary by Emma Camp speaks into a very lazy and (ironically) ideologically skewed narrative that colleges are liberal echo chambers where conservative students are silenced and shamed.

As Oyin Adedoyin examines in The Chronicle, however, evidence doesn’t clearly support that narrative:

In surveys, there’s some evidence that students are worried about how their beliefs will be viewed by their peers. Yet there’s also evidence that most students, across all political affiliations, feel encouraged by their institutions to speak freely and have never experienced discrimination based on their beliefs. In those surveys, a higher proportion of students of color report feeling unsafe on campus because of others’ speech.

Do Students Self-Censor? Here’s What the Data Tell Us

Camp’s piece presents a much different message than intended, I think, because the experiences she details seem to suggest that she did not learn the lessons I have identified above.

Academic discussions and debates are not about expressing your opinion, and certainly are not about expressing your opinion without consequences.

One incredibly important lesson of the classroom is that when you say something not credible, you should expect to be challenged, and even corrected.

I have had many students boldly express claims about people in poverty (characterizing them as poor), about gun violence, and such, prompting me to pull up research and evidence in order to show those claims are based in stereotypes and ideology but not evidence.

And then stressing that classroom discussions should be grounded in evidence. In academia, we value informed opinions.

Often, when students are corrected, they are not upset, or triggered; many, if not most of them, express aloud in class that they didn’t know that and appreciate the new information.

They experienced discomfort, and they started (or continued) a journey in personal growth.

These moments with my college students—incredibly bright and driven students—often remind me of those nonsense days of teaching high school English in the 1980s when we were tasked with test-prep during the early days of the standards and accountability.

One of the reading standards prescribed teaching the difference between fact and opinion. The prep material had nonsense examples such as noting “blue is the best color” is an opinion but “the sky is blue” is a fact.

Even my high school students would interrogate that by nothing that air is clear and that the blue is refracted light (and students also noted that we color bodies of water blue because even though water is also clear, large bodies of water reflect the sky). In other words, my high school students understood that there actually is no real clear distinction between fact and opinion.

There are credible claims, and there are claims without credibility.

What you should learn in the classroom about sharing your opinion, then, is not that all opinions are welcomed without consequence (which is what conservatives seem to be demanding for themselves while simultaneously advocating for actual state-imposed censorship), but that sharing your opinion carries with it a responsibility to ground that opinion in evidence—and then being prepared to be challenged.

A significant aspect of formal education dedicated to individual freedom and democracy is to avoid at all cost indoctrination while affording students many opportunities to interrogate their assumptions, stereotypes, and unexamined ideologies; formal education is a ticket out of provincialism.

Learning and growth are uncomfortable, in fact.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in Self-Reliance. “With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.”

Commentaries such as Camp’s seems to be seeking the sort of intellectual and ideological spaces that leave you alone with the shadow on your wall, trapped in your own little mind.

What you should learn in the classroom about sharing your opinion is that there is much more in this world than your own opinions.

Gag Orders, Loyalty Oaths, and the New McCarthyism

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

“Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes

An avalanche of gag order bills are being proposed in South Carolina—H.4325H.4343H.4392H.4605, and H.4799. While my home state of SC often likes to brag about being the first state to secede in order to maintain slavery (an uncomfortable fact many of these laws would ban from being taught), these bills represent the sort of crass copy-cat legislation that is also sweeping across other Republican-led states.

Not only is there nothing original in these bills (or even evidence-based or logical), but also there is a profoundly disturbing repetition of one of the lowest points in U.S. history—the New McCarthyism.

Let’s start with facts, which Republican legislation seeks to censor:

  • “Critical Race Theory” as it is mischaracterized by Republicans does not exist in K-12 schools.
  • CRT as properly defined (a scholarly theory created primarily by Black scholars for the the field of law and adapted in a few other fields such as education and sociology) does not exit in K-12 schools.
  • Systemic racism is a fact of the founding of the U.S. and a fact of the U.S. in 2022, supported by irrefutable evidence that defies simplistic explanations (such as individual racism).
  • Race is a social construct and not a matter of biology.
  • History is a living field for considering the facts of the past; there is no one true history.
  • Intellectual discomfort is often a necessary aspect of new learning when anyone must confront misconceptions or missing knowledge in order to better understand and navigate the world.

The gag orders such as those listed above in SC are blunt partisan politics driven by orchestrated lies that have nothing to do with protecting students or with teaching factual history or excellent literature/texts.

Curriculum and book censorship in 2022 is our New McCarthyism because the CRT veneer is being used to promote ideological agendas aimed at Black people and LGBTQ+ people.

The McCarthy Era, also known as the Red Scare, was confronted in The Crucible by Arthur Miller, who uses allegory to warn the U.S. at mid-twentieth century that McCarthy’s cries of “communism” were partisan lies similar to the Salem witch trials.

There were no witches.

There were no lists of communists.

There is no CRT poisoning U.S. schools.

Yet, in their extreme forms, some gag orders include requirements for loyalty oaths and mechanisms for withholding state funding for a decade. Even for private organizations.

The ultimate horror of these gag orders from Republicans is that by legislating censorship of what history and texts students are allowed to learn, we will be insuring the most damning of ideas about history itself—those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, often the very worst of it.

Yesterday I saw the following Tweet about the Russia invasion of Ukraine:

While I endorse the sentiment, I have been watching for over a year while most of the U.S. fails to resist censorship right here in the so-called land of the free and home of the brave.

Republicans are running roughshod over freedom, pushing the U.S. toward banning abortion (despite a majority of Americans supporting maintaining Roe v. Wade) and enacting curriculum and book bans (despite large majorities of Americans rejecting censorship):

CBS news poll

Ultimately, gag orders, loyalty oaths, and censorship are un-American and anti-democratic, as ALAN notes in their Intellectual Freedom Statement:

We know that intellectual freedom is foundational to an educated citizenry and essential to the preservation and practice of democracy. We are dedicated to protecting this natural human right, and therefore, we insist on open access to all school reading materials for all students.

Intellectual Freedom Statement

The New McCarthyism exposes the Republican Party as a party of oppression, the exact sort of fact that should make everyone of us uncomfortable.


The Eternal Darkness of the Empty Mind

My childhood and adolescence were a paradox.

I was born in Woodruff, South Carolina, and spent some of my childhood in nearby Enoree. Both were very small (Enoree was essentially a cross roads, not far from even smaller Cross Anchor); both were mill towns that had not quite begun to crumble in the 1960s and 1970s.

Woodruff seems like parody now, an ugly parody since the town had literal racial divisions with the Black neighborhood, Pine Ridge, on the other side of the railroad tracks dividing the town.

Racism and a bitter fundamentalism were the norm among white people, although most of these cancers remained unspoken and carefully navigated.

What I heard and witnessed in white-only spaces, including my home, contrasted disturbingly with what I heard and witnessed in mixed-race spaces—notably the vibrant high school sports arenas that much of my hometown worshipped. Yes, my hometown was a high school Friday night football sort of world that, again, almost seems like parody now.

Tradition and authority governed schooling and parenting. Conservative ideology was so pervasive there was little to no evidence any other way of thinking was possible.

There was a bitterness and fatalism among white people, among my family members, that I am deeply aware of now. I see it in the far-right Trump movement, reminding me of my parents railing against Muhammad Ali and blaming Dan Rather for the fall of Richard Nixon.

A darkness of empty minds. Irrational and certain.

By some inexplicable twist of fate, the paradox, I found myself in a series of events that allowed me to rise above that emptiness, allowed me the freedom of the human mind that quite literally saved my life.

I wasn’t quite bookish as a child, but I grew up surrounded by books and reading; my mother was a very bright woman with sparse formal education, a natural teacher with a tendency toward nurturing and mothering (she spent a good bit of her life running an in-home daycare and raised my sister’s three sons).

The secular miracle of my life was that for some odd reason my parents never censored my world, especially my intellectual life. By the time I was a teenager, I had graduated from relentlessly watching science fiction B-movies with my mother to reading covertly hundreds of comic books and novels by Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven and Jerry Purnell, and other science fiction not assigned in school (and there were several assigned novels in school I simply did not read, like Charles Dickens, even though I fell in love with Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, which I read in a literal fever while home sick).

In tenth grade, the miracle of miracles, I entered Lynn Harrill’s English class. Lynn was a fairly new teacher, a kind and passionate educator who eventually became a mentor and the primary impetus for my life as a teacher, scholar, and writer.

Lynn was perceptive, and bold. I spent many days hanging out in Lynn’s room when I wasn’t in class (a kindness I learned and mimicked when I became a teacher, the first years in the exact room where Lynn taught me).

His perception was recognizing my proclivities and how traditional schooling wasn’t serving me fully. His boldness was whispering to me one day when I was taking up his valuable time that I should read D.H. Lawrence (he added that since he knew my parents the recommendation would be fine but Lawrence was a controversial writer).

Lynn was right about the recommendation and my parents.

By high school, in fact, my mother patiently wrote checks each month for my subscription to a few comic books and Playboy, delivered to my home as if this sort of thing was completely normal in 1970s SC.

Of course, as a teen, Playboy and Lawrence spoke to my sexual curiosity of adolescence, but that was a very small fraction of my intellectual life that they both spurred. I recall to this day several interviews I read in Playboy by thoughtful people dramatically unlike the adults of my hometown.

Lawrence became my first literary crush (Clark as well as Niven and Purnell was my first nerd-reading crush). Over the next few years, I read everything by Lawrence. In college as I drifted toward education and English, I gathered as much literary analysis of Lawrence as I could.

Hovering beneath all this, of course, was my comic book collecting. For almost 50 years, I have been a collector of some kind. When I discover a writer, I plow through all their work, proudly buying and displaying all their books.

From that first affair with Lawrence to the more recent obsessions with Haruki Murakami, there have been too many love affairs with authors’ works to list them all—Kurt Vonnegut, Milan Kundera, Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin, and on and on.

And as I noted many times, one of the pivotal moments of my life was finding a used copy of the non-economic writing of Karl Marx, including the foundational pieces that turned me on to being an educator.

Yes, Karl Marx inspired me to a life of service and a commitment as a teacher to foster in students a vibrant mind of possibilities and ideas—and a robust, unyielding repulsion for indoctrination, and even authority.

Many years later, I discovered Paulo Freire and bell hooks. Freire gave me an important framing—the choice of being authoritative (earning the respect of students and readers because I demonstrate authority over content) instead of authoritarian (demanding compliance because of my status).

It is 2022 and I am terrified.

That terror isn’t grounded in the never-ending threat of Covid (although that is certainly terrifying), but in the spreading threat from Republicans determined to censor and control curriculum and what books anyone has access too.

The current Republican playbook isn’t new. Consider this from 1961 in an Oklahoma newspaper:

Jack Hamm, Oklahoma City Star, 6/2/1961 (H/T Randall Stephens)

Notice the second tentacle from the left: “Millions spent for Godless literature.”

I was born about 6 months before this editorial cartoon, and today read the following from Judd Legum:

In Indiana, State Senator Scott Baldwin (R) has introduced sweeping legislation that Baldwin says is designed to ban Critical Race Theory (CRT) and related concepts in K-12 education. During a committee hearing on the bill earlier this month, Baldwin told a high school English teacher that he should be “impartial” when discussing Nazism. It is a case study about how the frantic efforts to ban CRT can quickly lead to absurd outcomes. 

Author of anti-CRT bill tells teacher he should stay “impartial” on Nazism

Republicans all across the U.S. are introducing and passing legislation censoring curriculum (targeting anti-racism content) and banning books from classrooms, school libraries, and public libraries (focusing on LGBTQ+ authors and works); some school board members have even called for book burnings.

My home state of SC is following the lead of other Republican-led states (notably Texas) by proposing guidelines that allow anyone to censor books for others.

It is incredibly important to emphasize that Republicans are actively removing books from school and public libraries—using government to decide what books and ideas people have access to.

These actions are tyranny. The antithesis of being free people.

There is no individual freedom without intellectual freedom.

No one should be held hostage to a life of an empty mind. Everyone deserves the accidental great fortune of my youth, including the kindness and boldness of my teacher, Lynn Harrill.

But none of this should be done in whispers, or with fear.

Republicans are calling for the eternal darkness of the empty mind, and we must resist because censorship erodes both American freedom and human dignity.

Also in 1961, Lou LaBrant recognized the failure of education as conformity:

Throughout our country today we have great pressure to improve our schools. By far too much of that pressure tends toward a uniformity, a conformity, a lock-step which precludes the very excellence we claim to desire….Only a teacher who thinks about his work can think in class; only a thinking teacher can stimulate as they should be stimulated the minds with which he works. Freedom of any sort is a precious thing; but freedom to be our best, in the sense of our highest, is not only our right but our moral responsibility. “They”—the public, the administrators, the critics—have no right to take freedom from us, the teachers; but freedom is not something one wins and then possesses; freedom is something we rewin every day, as much a quality of ourselves as it is a concession from others. Speaking and writing and exploring the books of the world are prime fields for freedom. (pp. 390-391)

LaBrant, L. (1961). The rights and responsibilities of the teacher of EnglishEnglish Journal, 50(6), 379–383, 391. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/810824

We must rewin our freedom.

The Zombie Allure of Ayn Rand’s Empty Literature and Philosophy

Social media didn’t create it, but social media are the perfect platforms for recording a disturbing fact about the zombie ideas that just will not die in the U.S. Case in point is that Ayn Rand is trending because NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers pointed to her Atlas Shrugged on his book shelf.

Rand is a favorite of conservatives, especially among those embracing libertarianism, but Rand represents the consequences of the right’s anti-intellectualism that leaves Republicans and conservatives ignorant of the academics they shun and shame.

A snapshot of the problem occurred often on Rush Limbaugh’s radio program when he periodically praised “Ann” Rand—a grotesque moment that implied Limbaugh never read any of her work but felt compelled to use her as the dog whistle Rand has been reduced to (if her low-form literature and philosophy could be taken any lower).

Many people have noted that a large number of conservative thinkers and political leaders never attended or dropped out of college. Using Rand to signal a literary and ideological basis for yourself is actually a much different sort of signaling than conservatives realize since they have no or little experience with academia (note that there is plenty worth criticizing about academia and academics).

Citing Rand is the academic equivalent to citing Wikipedia or the dictionary in an essay for your first-year composition course: You just told your professor something you would have preferred to keep secret.

None the less, Ayn Rand has achieved a unique distinction; she is recognized as not being worthy of consideration in two major fields, literature and philosophy. Virtually no one in either field takes her work seriously even as both flourish among adolescent readers and limited political leaders.

That noted, she likely has another distinction also; her work’s enduring popularity prove that “popular” and “enduring” do not necessarily equal “good” or “credible.”

Rand’s enduring popularity in the U.S. among conservatives does highlight the internal lack of logic and self-defeating power of embracing uncritically a simplistic ideology. Rand’s rugged individualism seems to mask her militant atheism and sexual politics for Christian conservatives.

Rand’s popularity is a subset, of course, of the allure of the libertarian lie, the American Dream built on the argument that anyone can succeed with the right effort (and the inverse that failure is your own damn fault).

Let me recommend the Rand reader below, but I want to highlight a few points here.

First, I want to stress that while many of us on the left are quick to criticize Rand’s work, we are not advocating for legislation to ban her books in U.S. schools or libraries, and none of us are calling for Rand book burnings (except for a cheeky comment in a letter by Flannery O’Connor decades ago). Please note that Rodger’s glee over having Rand on his book shelf is occurring while Republicans are banning books they dislike, and some are calling for book burnings.

The Left believes in refuting and confronting bad ideas; the Right believes in censorship, using the government to control what people can read (not very Randian).

Finally, I want to emphasize just what people are endorsing when they point to Ayn Rand.

As noted by Skye C. Cleary, Rand endorses a caustic victim blaming:

It’s easy to criticise Rand’s ideas. They’re so extreme that to many they read as parody. For example, Rand victim-blames: if someone doesn’t have money or power, it’s her own fault. Howard Roark, the ‘hero’ of The Fountainhead, rapes the heroine Dominique Francon. A couple of awkward conversations about repairing a fireplace is, according to Rand, tantamount to Francon issuing Roark ‘an engraved invitation’ to rape her. The encounter is clearly nonconsensual – Francon genuinely resists and Roark unmistakably forces himself upon her – and yet Rand implies that rape survivors, not the rapists, are responsible. Might makes right and, as Roark states earlier in the novel, the point isn’t who is going to let him do whatever he wants: ‘The point is, who will stop me?’ Rand’s championing of selfishness, and her callousness to the unfortunate, finds echoes in contemporary politics. It would not be stretching a point to say that her philosophy has encouraged some politicians to ignore and blame the poor and powerless for their condition.

Philosophy shrugged: ignoring Ayn Rand won’t make her go away

Ultimately, the problem is not the zombie allure of Rand, but the people to whom she speaks; Masha Gessen concludes:

And, of course, the spirit of Ayn Rand haunts the White House. Many of Donald Trump’s associates, including the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, have paid homage to her ideas, and the President himself has praised her novel “The Fountainhead.” (Trump apparently identifies with its architect hero, Howard Roark, who blows up a housing project he has designed for being insufficiently perfect.) Their version of Randism is stripped of all the elements that might account for my inability to throw out those books: the pretense of intellectualism, the militant atheism, and the explicit advocacy of sexual freedom. From all that Rand offered, these men have taken only the worst: the cruelty. They are not even optimistic. They are just plain mean.

The Persistent Ghost of Ayn Rand, the Forebear of Zombie Neoliberalism

A final irony of Rand is that below I offer a reader by thoughtful people writing about why you are likely wasting your time reading Rand—and risking your soul if you do read her novels as how-to manuals for your life.

Keep in mind that taking sides on Rand is simply this: Rand believes mean people rock, and those of us rejecting Rand know mean people suck.

Reader

‘Atlas Shrugged’ free books and essay contest, plus other inducements (A good overview of why Rand’s novels being popular and enduring is a problem)

Philosophy shrugged: ignoring Ayn Rand won’t make her go away

Adam Roberts & Lisa Duggan on Ayn Rand

How Bad Writing Destroyed the World

The Bad Idea That Keeps on Giving

Flannery O’Connor: Friends Don’t Let Friends Read Ayn Rand (1960)

The problem with Ayn Rand? She isn’t a philosopher

The Persistent Ghost of Ayn Rand, the Forebear of Zombie Neoliberalism

Ayn Rand is for children

Freedom and the Politics of Canceling Teachers and Curriculum

By mid-December of 2021, Matthew Hawn, a former teacher in Tennessee, will once again have his appeal heard after being fired for violating the state’s restrictions on curriculum:

The Tennessee General Assembly has banned the teaching of critical race theory, passing a law at the very end of the legislative session to withhold funding from public schools that teach about white privilege.

Republicans in the House made the legislation a last-minute priority, introducing provisions that ban schools from instructing students that one race bears responsibility for the past actions against another, that the United States is fundamentally racist or that a person is inherently privileged or oppressive due to their race.

Tennessee bans public schools from teaching critical race theory amid national debate, Natalie Allison

As Allison reported in May, several states across the U.S. have filed or passed copy-cat legislation aimed at banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory.

By October and November, the consequences of Tennessee’s law have moved from silencing and canceling teachers to attempts to cancel curriculum [1]:

The Tennessee Department of Education recently declined to investigate a complaint filed under a new state law prohibiting the teaching of certain topics regarding race and bias.

The complaint, the first directed to the state under the new law passed this spring, was filed by Robin Steenman, chair of the Moms for Liberty Williamson County chapter, a conservative parent group sweeping the nation. 

The 11-page complaint alleged that the literacy curriculum, Wit and Wisdom, used by Williamson County Schools and at least 30 other districts, has a “heavily biased agenda” that makes children “hate their country, each other and/or themselves.”

Tennessee Department of Education rejects complaint filed under anti-critical race theory law, Meghan Mangrum

Although the complaint was rejected, Mangrum noted, “The group detailed concerns with four specific books on subjects like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, the integration of California schools by advocate Sylvia Mendez and her family, and the autobiography of Ruby Bridges, adapted for younger learners.”

A teacher fired for teaching Ta-Nehisi Coates, parents calling for bans on MLK and teaching about Ruby Bridges—these events are not unique to Tennessee, but they reflect a pattern of efforts to control not only teachers, but what students are allowed to learn and read.

Notable in these examples is that many of the consequences of legislation are canceling Black writers and key aspects of Black history; additionally, legislation and calls for book banning are targeting LGBTQ+ writers and topics.

Teaching and curriculum in the U.S. are being systematically and politically whitewashed.

One aspect not being addressed often is that political dynamic. Parents, political activists, and politicians are impacting who teaches and what is being taught in the context of a historical and current demand that teachers themselves remain apolitical, both in their classrooms and their lives beyond school.

As I have discussed often, teaching is necessarily political, and teaching as well as writing are necessarily types of activism.

For teachers, then, we must recognize that calls for teachers to be objective, neutral, and apolitical are themselves political acts. Currently, laws being passed and parents/activists confronting school boards are exercising their political power at the expense of teachers and schools—both of which are required to remain somehow politically neutral.

From historian/activist Howard Zinn to critical scholars such as Joe Kincheloe and to poet Adrienne Rich, we have ample evidence that taking a neutral stance is a political act that passively endorses the status quo and that silencing words is an act of canceling thought, eradicating ideas.

Zinn’s commitment to transparency as a teacher and activist is hauntingly relevant to the current political attack on teachers and curriculum:

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 [emphasis added]….

From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than “objectivity”; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, Howard Zinn

And Kincheloe confronted not only who is actually indoctrinating students but the imperative that teachers recognize teaching as inherently political:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive [emphasis added].

Critical Pedagogy Primer, Joe L. Kincheloe

The great irony is that critical educators (often smeared as “Marxists”) are committed, as Kincheloe asserts, to a foundational concern: “Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom.”

The Orwellian named “Moms for LIberty,” then, by calling for canceling curriculum are in fact being “totalitarian and oppressive,” calling for not education, but indoctrination. To ban words and ideas is to ban the possibility of thinking, of learning:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there [emphasis in original] to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido [emphasis in original], rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.

Arts of the Possible, Adrienne Rich

A final powerful point is that many of these political acts to silence teachers and cancel curriculum are occurring in right-to-work states controlled by Republicans. Teachers not only are expected to be neutral, objective, and apolitical, but also work with a distinct awareness they have almost no job security.

Hawn fired in Tennessee simply taught a text and now is fighting for his career; the text in most ways just a year ago was considered non-controversial and even celebrated as Coates had attained recognition as one of the country’s leading Black voices.

During this holiday season at the end of 2021, teachers honestly have no decision about whether or not to be political. We are faced with only two political choices: conform to the demand that we take a neutral pose, resulting in endorsing whatever status quo legislators and parents/activist impose on schools; or recognize and embrace the essential political nature of being a teacher by actively opposing efforts to cancel teachers and curriculum.


[1] Twitter thread:

Conservatives Seeking Education as a Buffet of Ignorance

Several decades ago, the following true story about teaching in a small, conservative Southern town, seemed like a once-in-a-career experience: A new social studies teacher at my high school was challenged by a parent because this new teacher covered Middle East geography by detailing the regional tensions correlated with religion among Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

Ultimately, the parent wanted their child removed from the class because, as the parent announced to the principal, “I don’t want my son knowing religions other than Christianity exist.”

Fast forward about three decades—passing through several rounds of school choice movements (which I will connect later)—and now public school teachers and college professors across the U.S. find themselves challenged in a similar but far more extensive and organized way concerning Critical Race Theory (CRT).

Mike Gonzalez, for example, at the Heritage Foundation, has constructed Try This “Critical Race Theory” Checklist for conservative and Christian parents who, like the parent above, want to opt their children out of knowledge.

Along with explosive and even violent school board meetings about mask mandates, Covid, and, yes, CRT, parents are now organizing to opt their children out of education; for example, the Orwellian-named Families for Educational Freedom offer a CRT Lessons Letter and a Intrusive Survey Letter; the former outlines what parents want their children to have freedom from [1]:

We/I,________________________________, the parent(s) of _______________________________, grade ________, are/is exercising our/my fundamental parental rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, and/or any other state and federal laws to opt our/my child out of any instruction in Critical Race Theory (CRT), including but not limited to the following ideas or principles —

• That any race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, and/or socioeconomic status is inherently superior or inferior to any other race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin and/or socioeconomic status.

• That any race, gender, sexual orientation, and/or national origin is privileged or oppressed.

• That race-based stereotyping and labeling are acceptable as part of “anti-racism” education.

• That an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of the individual’s race.

• That an individual’s moral character is determined by the individual’s race.

• That America and its institutions are fundamentally racist.

• That the values, principles, and/or ideals of one’s own family or religion are fundamentally incorrect, racist, and/or preventing them from social and emotional growth. 

These teachings of CRT foster discrimination and harassment on the basis of race and are a violation of our family’s values and religious beliefs.  It is well-established that parents have a fundamental right to direct the religious upbringing and education of their children.  Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972).  You are not to instruct or inculcate my child on the aforementioned or following subjects, without providing me at least fifteen (15) days prior written notice and providing me with the intended materials and lesson plans. 

The prohibition extends to any promotion, legitimization, or normalization of CRT, no matter how your program or approach is defined or packaged, including but not limited to any instruction, materials, or conversations related to “equity,” “privilege,” “intersectionality,” “diversity, tolerance and inclusion,” “anti-racism,” “microaggressions,” “white privilege,” “white adjacency,” “hate speech,” “hate crimes,” “critical social justice,” “postcolonial theory,” “postcolonialism,” “sensitivity education,” or the like.

CRT Lessons Letter

The bullet points may look familiar since they are occurring, often verbatim, in state legislation attacking CRT directly and indirectly as well as banning the use of the 1619 Project.

These misleading but purposeful strategies parents are using to censor curriculum in public schools is a logical evolution from how a minority of parents have been leveraging control over public education for decades—opting students out of sex education, book challenges and banning, a revolving door of school choice schemes that pander to what parents want their children to learn (without the price tag of private schools that are often appealing because there parents can and do monitor and control what is and isn’t taught), periodic challenges to the teaching of evolution, etc.

If polls are even remotely good indicators, the current Republican Party remains about 40% loyal to Trump, suggesting about 10-15% of Americans constitute this movement against CRT (likely a similar percentage to the Moral Majority movement coinciding with the Reagan presidency).

While this is a significant minority, the U.S. has long had a powerful and very vocal conservative and Christian influence that is solidly anti-education.

One of the great ironies (similar to the organization’s name noted above, Families for Educational Freedom) of the backlash against CRT (beyond that CRT doesn’t really exist in K-12 education) is that it rests on an old and tired argument that leftist teachers are indoctrinating students; this is projection from conservatives who are, in fact, seeking to indoctrinate students.

While leftists are extremely rare in K-12 education, marginalized in higher education, and nearly powerless in the economic/political system of the U.S., as I have noted often, true leftists, critical educators, are adamantly opposed to indoctrination and recent efforts by Republicans mirror commitments to indoctrination found in China.

Ultimately, this CRT mania isn’t about CRT, but is part of the steady and determined effort by an anti-education minority to dismantle universal public education and academic freedom because at their core, as William Ayers concludes:

Education will unfit anyone to be a slave. That is because education is bold, adventurous, creative, vivid, illuminating — in other words education is for self-activating explorers of life, for those who would challenge fate, for doers and activists, for citizens. Training is for slaves, for loyal subjects, for tractable employees, for willing consumers, for obedient soldiers. Education tears down walls; training is all barbed wire.

excerpt from To Teach, William Ayers

Conservatives and Christians embrace education as training, indoctrination, as mere preparation for work or passive compliance with the dogma of religion.

The attacks on CRT and efforts by parents to opt out of curriculum deemed “indoctrination” or claimed to cause “racial discomfort” are poised to turn education into a buffet of ignorance leaving our children and teens intellectually starved and the status quo safely protected.


[1] See:

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. in the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it….

We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice. (pp. 24, 25)

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

Indoctrination by Omission

While attacks on Critical Race Theory (CRT) by Republicans and conservatives have many different claims, one consistent element of these attacks is misinformation.

One of those false associations can be found at the persistently misleading Discovery Institute (infamous for stoking the evolution debate): Critical Race Theory – The Marxist Trojan Horse writes Walter Myers III for the “institute.”

Recently I gave a presentation for a learning in retirement session at my university—The 1619 Project:  Should we “reframe” our country’s history to include the consequences of slavery?”

In the opening of the presentation I explain what CRT is, focusing on the Big Lie of the attacks by assuring everyone that CRT is not taught in K-12 schools.

But I also focused on the claim that CRT is Marxist indoctrination:

While some overlap does exist among CRT scholars and Marxist scholars, there often is considerable tension between the focus on centering race and centering social class.

While this slide sparked some important dialogue among the audience, I had begun the presentation (not planned) by noting that the session began with a short video that included a dramatic reading that included the phrase “black-on-black crime.”

I noted that while crime in the U.S. is overwhelmingly within race—the white-on-white crime rate is about the exact same as the black-on-black rate—media, public, and political discourse only utters “black-on-black crime.”

This is indoctrination by omission, and this phenomenon in education raises an important question:

Similar to what I have raised before—Who’s indoctrinating whom?—”Are we worried about ideology or just one ideology?” is an important question to confront, and we are left with only one real answer.

Conservatives are seeking ways to indoctrinate students within the parameters of their ideology; therefore, the attacks on CRT and the 1619 Project are not calls for academic freedom, the marketplace of ideas, or even “both sides.”

Republicans and conservatives are seeking indoctrination by omission.

As I responded to the Tweet above, I noted that since I teach many students with private religious K-12 schooling, I regularly am asked to “go over” evolution because these very bright and high-achieving students were never taught evolution in biology while attending private religious schools.

Whether its our schooling or our political, media, or public discourse, what is not spoken is just as powerful as what is spoken.

Poet Adrienne Rich writes in her “Arts of the Possible,” the eponymous essay of her 2001 collection of essays:

The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable. It is through these invisible holes in reality that poetry makes it way—certainly for women and other marginalized subjects and for disempowered and colonized peoples generally, but ultimately for all who practice art at any deep levels. The impulse to create begins—often terribly and fearfully—in a tunnel of silence.

On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978

In the Bizarro world of conservative thought, simply exposing students to ideas that do not conform to a narrow conservative ideology is a type of indoctrination.

Republicans are trying to control K-12 and higher education in ways that honor mythologizing/idealizing the past and speaking of U.S. history and day-to-day realities of the U.S. through aspirational language—from “Founding Fathers” to “the U.S. is not a racist country.”

Ultimately, what offends Republicans/conservatives about academic freedom and critical approaches to history, literature, etc., is that being critical is inherently a challenge to power and a rejecting of indoctrination.

There is no such thing as objective history, no such thing as de-politicized “facts.”

Contemporary historians are well aware that history tends to be written by the winners, by those with power and authority, and that these versions of history are in the interests of those with that power and authority.

Current attacks on CRT have included direct attacks on the work of Howard Zinn, who popularized seeing history from the perspectives of the losers and marginalized.

Returning to the Tweet above, conservatives are not angry that Zinn’s history is ideological, but that Zinn’s history challenges their singular ideology of mythologizing, idealizing, and aspiring to the detriment of marginalized populations in the U.S.

If we in the U.S. genuinely value individual freedom, each child and young adult deserves education grounded in academic freedom, and academic freedom requires that we attend to not only what is taught but also what is omitted.

K-12 and higher education are not indoctrinating children and teens, certainly not into Marxist ideology, but Republicans/conservatives are endorsing indoctrination by omission—something that if we want to be aspirational is not very American.


Recommended

Conceptualizing color-evasiveness: using dis/ability critical race theory to expand a color-blind racial ideology in education and society

“Racial Discomfort” in an Era of Erasing Curriculum

My neighboring state of North Carolina has filed copy-cat legislation being proposed across the U.S. by Republicans as part of the manufactured Critical Race Theory (CRT) crisis.

As Justin Parmenter explains, “Among other things, the bill would make it illegal for teachers to promote feelings of racial discomfort and would require schools to prominently post information about diversity training on their websites for public review.”

Republicans and conservatives have launched a campaign grounded primarily in several false claims, including a drastic misrepresentation of what CRT is (a graduate-level theoretical lens primarily found in law schools) and that CRT exists in any significant way in K-12 public education (it doesn’t).

Since the public and political rhetoric is both misleading and false, and since the legislation is written in coded ways, those of us who recognize that this movement is an insidious lie (political leaders claiming to be protecting academic freedom by banning CRT from academic spaces) must now call Republicans on their bluff, specifically addressing the concept of “racial discomfort.”

As an educator for almost 40 years, I find no real evidence that white third graders across the U.S. are being told in schools that they are personally culpable for racism and slavery simply because they are white.

And as a scholar who understands and embraces CRT, I also know if CRT were being practiced with children across the U.S. in public school, that theoretical lens focuses on systemic racism, not individual racism. In other words, white students in U.S. public education would be well served by CRT that emphasizes the role of systemic racism regardless of individual beliefs.

CRT is one way to raise everyone’s awareness of racism and inequity so that we can all behave in ways that lead the country toward equity and meritocracy.

The only blame anyone should suffer (in the context of CRT) is a refusal to recognize systemic racism and then a refusal to behave in ways that are equitable.

Republican legislation is prescribing, then, that students remain ignorant, and ironically, passively complicit in systemic racism.

But the primary unwritten/unspoken given in the claimed concern about “racial discomfort” is that the term addresses only white racial discomfort—as if being white is somehow a greater burden, for example, than being Black and actually experiencing racism.

Is hearing or reading “n—–” not a form of racial discomfort?

Is being told you are “articulate” while Black not a form of racial discomfort?

Is being asked “Can I touch your hair?” while Black not a form of racial discomfort?

Is being paid less even though you the same educational attainment while Black not a form or racial discomfort?

Since this movement is ambiguous on the surface, we must call their bluff by acknowledging “racial discomfort” among all races.

Black students, for examples, must not be asked to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, or The Great Gatsby.

Imagine being a Black teenager in a room filled with white peers and a white teacher, reading from Gatsby [1]:

“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard? … Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved … This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or those other races will have control of things … The idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are, and … And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization – oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?”

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Or the repeated use of “n—–” in Huck Finn, Mockingbird, and Of Mice and Men.

And let’s not stop there.

Shakespeare is filled with sexism, bigotry, and racism It must go. No more Shakespeare because children and teens might feel discomfort.

And honestly, who didn’t feel discomfort when confronted with the Pythagorean Theorem.

It must go also.

In the context of the legislation being proposed and passed, we must demand that all texts and topics causing anyone (regardless of race) “racial discomfort” be removed from the curriculum.

The logical extension of this nonsense is the total erasure of curriculum; there simply is nothing left to teach if we mobilize and demand that legislation be applied evenly for everyone.

It shouldn’t be on the shoulders of minoritized peoples to call this bluff, but a widespread effort to take this legislation to its logical conclusions would cause the movement to collapse under its own dishonesty.

Republicans and conservatives do not care about everyone’s discomfort, let’s note. How trans students feel has been repeatedly disregarded, for example.

Legislation aimed at CRT is a Great White Lie, but if we call them on their bluff, that lie will be exposed when we find ourselves with a total erasure of the curriculum.


[1] See When W. E. B. Du Bois Made a Laughingstock of a White Supremacist

The Politics of Childhood in an Era of Authoritarian Education

While on vacation, a friend and I were discussing the paradox of parenting.

A parent often feels a tension between fostering and supporting a child to be the person they want to be as that contrasts with dictating what is best for the child (knowing as adults do that children, teens, and young adults often make decisions necessarily without the context of experience that would certainly change many decisions).

That paradox, that tension has existed for me as a teacher/professor, parent, grandparent, and coach.

I am constantly checking myself in roles of authority to determine if I am imposing my authority onto children and young people (authoritarian) or if I am mentoring and fostering those humans in the cone of my authority in ways that support their own autonomy and development along lines they actively choose for themselves (authoritative).

This is a dichotomy examined by Paulo Freire, and a central concern for any critical educator.

The current misguided attacks on anything “critical” is particularly frustrating for critical educators since these attacks are designed to fulfill the demands of authoritarian systems, partisan politics and formal education.

It has occurred to me recently that I have been in roles of authority for a very long time, beginning with working as a lifeguard in my mid- to late teens. My role of authority literally began, then, with the expectations that I would guard human life—any human life that came into the sphere of the pool where I was charged with monitoring swimming and the safety of not only individual swimmers but all of the people in the pool.

I was a very good and capable swimmer, and for a teen, I was reasonably responsible (although I cringe thinking about being a head lifeguard when only 17 or so). But having the level of authority and responsibility that being a lifeguard entails was quite likely asking far more of me that I deserved.

Those days of lifeguarding set me on course for being the responsible person for the next 40-plus years, exacting a significant toll on me psychologically and emotionally.

Maintaining a critical authoritative pose when in positions of authority is extremely hard, much harder than being authoritarian.

Way back in the 1980s and 1990s, I was practicing in many ways the sort of critical teaching that is coming under attack in 2021, even resulting in a teacher in Tennessee being fired:

At issue was Hawn assigning the essay “The First White President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates to students in his Contemporary Issues class in February, and later in March, playing a video of “White Privilege,” a spoken word poem by Kyla Jenée Lacey to the same students.

A Tennessee teacher taught a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay and a poem about white privilege. He was fired for it

Many conservatives see the work of Coates, for example, as radical, while those of us on the left would argue Coates’s work is quite mainstream and accessible—but far from radical. This is the same dynamic around Barack Obama, for example; Obama is a moderate and an incrementalist, but certainly not a radical leftist or Marxist (as conservatives like to suggest).

While I taught high school English in the very conservative rural South, I was mostly allowed to teach texts with only occasional complaints from parents. What looks quite odd now is that I included Howard Zinn in my classes for many years without a peep from anyone (Zinn is a key target of the ant-CRT movement now).

But I also included Joseph Campbell’s comparative mythology in my classes in order to help students navigate metaphorical approaches to narratives (a key skill needed in the Advanced Placement course I taught and as preparation for college).

Including Campbell did cause problems since his work complicated the literalism many of students experienced in their religious lives. Fundamentalist Christianity was the background of nearly all my students, and Campbell’s casual claims that all religions and mythologies told similar archetypal stories stepped on the toes of arguments that accepting Jesus was the only way into heaven.

I aroused similar complaints by including Gandhi in my Emerson/Thoreau/MLK unit.

The parental challenges to Campbell and Gandhi were grounded in a type of insecurity that had never been examined critically by those parents, all of which was the result of having been raised in authoritarian environments.

I did have my students interrogate that Sunday school and preaching were not places where they were encouraged to ask questions or challenge any of the “lessons” they received.

So in 2021, I cannot stress too much that the Republican attack on critical race theory and how history is taught is simply a battle for the integrity of the mind of children, teens, and young adults.

Learning and knowledge—especially if we genuinely believe in human autonomy and democracy—are not simply about accumulating facts determined to be true or important by some authority, but are about learning how to know what we believe is true and why.

Human freedom is most threatened by unexamined beliefs, not by the act of questioning itself.

Authority doesn’t just resist questioning, but entirely rejects it as an act.

Republicans and the conservatives drawn to authoritarianism do not trust human agency, do not believe in the free exchange of ideas, and do not believe in the essential power of questioning, especially when the questions are aimed at their authority.

Nothing is as simple as “both sides,” and certainly we should never fall into traps of “only know this.”

There can never be free people, however, without free minds cultivated in the guarantee of academic freedom.

And the free exchange of ideas will never be spaces without discomfort, which now seems to be a smokescreen used by Republicans in their pursuit of securing authority.

Suddenly, Republicans are concerned about uncomfortable white students, but seem oblivious to the discomfort, for example, of thousands and thousands of Black students experience reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird.

Teachers must now tip-toe around the uncomfortable texts and conversations about race and racism because of the possibility of white discomfort (note that Black discomfort about Huck Finn has been repeatedly swept aside under the guise of “classic literature”)—a stance once again disregarding the daily discomfort of Black children experiencing racism.

Intellectual discomfort (what texts and discussions prompt in formal schooling) is often necessary for learning, but existential discomfort (what targets of racism and sexism experience) are not necessary and are essentially harmful.

Authoritarian education is willing to sacrifice the existential comfort of marginalized children in order to shield some children from intellectual discomfort.

Even more disturbing, however, is that what is really being protected is the frailty of those students’ parents and those people in authority who are not willing to risk being challenged or questioned in any way.