Category Archives: politics

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?

Announcing: Fall 2022 through Winter 2023 Schedule

During my first 18 years as an educators, I was a high school English teacher in rural South Carolina, my hometown in fact. I never imagined doing anything else, but I did attain my doctorate in 1998, still planning to be Dr. Thomas, high school teacher, for my entire career.

It is 2022, and I just completed 20 years in higher education, where I am a full professor in education and (fortunately) also teach first-year and upper-level writing. This fall I am taking my first ever sabbatical.

However, if anything, my scholarly schedule is more packed than at any time in my career. If you are interested in my work, I invite you to join me at the following presentations/keynotes and/or look for my upcoming publications.

Fall 2022 through Winter 2023 Schedule

Publications

How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students (2nd Ed)(2nd Edition) – IAP – [first edition]


Thomas, P.L. (2022). The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading


A Critical Examination of Grade Retention as Reading Policy (white paper)

P.L. Thomas, Education, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Prepared for the Ohio Education Association in response to Ohio’s “Third Grade Reading Guarantee”

September 15, 2022

[Download as PDF and supporting PP]


Presentations/Keynotes

Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice

September 28, 2022

Webinar

Science of Reading Policy Brief (NEPC)

Pioneer Valley Books

October 20, 2022 – 4:00 – 5:00 pm

Webinar

Unpacking Reading Science to Inform a Different Path to Literacy 

The “Science of Reading” movement that began in 2018 has gained momentum and has had outsized influence on state reading policy and classroom practice. However, the SoR movement presents two negative impacts on long-term literacy education—a commitment to the “simple view” of reading (SVR) and mandates for phonics-first instruction for all beginning readers. In this webinar, Paul Thomas, Ed.D. (Professor of Education, Furman University, and author of How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students) places the SoR movement in the context of the robust but complex current state of reading science. Come join us on October 20, 2022, at 4 p.m. as we explore what’s next in literacy education.

Ohio Education Association

Education Matters podcast; grade retention

TBD

University of Arkansas

October 24 at 6:30

The Jones Center for Families

Serving the Literacy Needs of All Students: While Resisting Another Reading War

30th annual Reading Recovery Council of Michigan Institute, Thursday, November 17, 2022, Somerset Inn, Troy, Michigan

Keynote

The “Science of Reading” Multiverse

Before anyone can, or should, answer “Do you support/reject the ‘science of reading’?” we must first clarify exactly what the term means. I detail the three ways the phrase currently exists since it entered mainstream media during 2018. “Science of reading” as discourse, as marketing, and as a research base.

Break-out Session

How to Navigate Social Media (and RL) Debates about the “Science of Reading”

Let me start with a caveat: Don’t debate “science of reading” advocates on social media. However, if you enter into a social media or real-life debate, you must keep your focus on informing others who may read or hear that debate, and be prepared with credible and compelling evidence.


NCTE 2022, November 17 – 20, 2022, Anaheim, CA 

Friday November 18, 2022

Event Title: Banned in the USA: Lighting a Fire for Reading and Not to Books

Type: Roundtable Sessions

Time: 12:30 PM PST – 1:45 PM PST

Location: 264-BC

Role: Roundtable Leader

Event Title: The Intersection of Literacy, Sport, Culture, and Society

Type: Roundtable Sessions

Time: 2:00 PM PST – 3:15 PM PST

Location: 204-B

Role: Roundtable Leader


2023 Comprehensive Literacy and Reading Recovery Conference, Chicago, IL, January 18-20, 2023 

Keynote

Teaching Literacy in a Time of Science of Reading and Censorship

The key elements of the science of reading (SOR) movement as well as the current move the ban books and censor curriculum are outlined against historical and research-based contexts. The unique challenges facing literacy educators iden/fied with considera/on of how literacy teachers can maintain professional autonomy in the classroom and prac/ce ac/vism in pursuit of a more nuanced understanding of “science” and research as well as in support of academic freedom.

90-minute breakout sessions

Academic Freedom Isn’t Free: Teachers as Activists

The US is experiencing one of the most significant waves of book bans and educational gag orders impacting academic freedom, access to diverse voices and history, and the safety of teachers and students. Teachers are historically required to be apolitical and avoid advocacy in and out of the classroom. This session examines the politics of calling for no politics among educators, and explore with participants both the need to advocate for their professional autonomy and academic freedom as well as for academic freedom.

Unpacking the “Science” in the Science of Reading for a Different Approach to Policy and Practice

The science of reading (SOR) movement and the use of the “science of reading” in marketing literacy programs have had a significant impact on reading policy and practice across the US since 2018. Policy and practice related to dyslexia, adopting reading programs, teaching reading (and the role of phonics instruction), however, have too often been guided by a misleading and overly simplistic version of SOR portrayed in the media and advocated by parents and politicians. This session examines the contradictions between claims made by SOR advocates and the current research base.


LitCon 2023, January 28 – 31, Columbus, OH

Rethinking Reading Policy in the Science of Reading Era

Since 2018, states have been revising or adopting new reading legislation prompted by the science of reading movement. Placed in the context of several reading crises over the last 100 years, however, this movement is deja vu all over again, destined to fail and be replaced by another reading crisis in the near future. This session explains why and offers a new approach to reading policy at the state, district, and school levels.


WSRA 2023 Conference, Milwaukee, WI, February 9-11, 2023 

The “Science of Reading” Multiverse

Since early 2018, the phrase “science of reading” has entered and often dominated media, public/parental, and political discourse around the teaching and learning of reading in the U.S. Before anyone can, or should, answer “Do you support/reject the ‘science of reading’?” we must first clarify exactly what the term means; therefore, in this session, then, I want to detail the three ways the phrase currently exists since it entered mainstream use in the media during 2018. The session will cover the research base around the SoR movement for context. Participants will be invited to discuss their experiences with these three versions as well.

Banning Books Is Un-American

The U.S. is experiencing a wave of book censorship and educational gag orders. This session examines the historical context of censorship as it impacts the teaching of literacy and literature by focusing on writer Kurt Vonnegut’s response to censors. The session will include powerful policy and position statements supporting the rights of teachers to teach and students to learn, including The Students’ Right to Read (NCTE), Freedom to Teach: Statement against Banning Books (NCTE), and Educators’ Right and Responsibilities to Engage in Antiracist Teaching (NCTE). Participants will have an opportunity to discuss and explore how and why educators must and can seek ways to defend academic freedom and thew right to teach and learn.


PSLA Conference 2023, February 23-25, 2023

Marriott Hilton Head Resort and Spa, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

Friday, February 24, 2023, 8:00 – 9:00

Invited Speaker: Rethinking Reading Science: Beyond the Simple View of Reading, Paul Thomas

Focusing on reading science published since 2018 addressing reading, dyslexia, and phonics, this session details a complex but robust state of reading science. Media and think-tank messaging parents, political leaders, and the public are receiving about the “science of reading” are oversimplified, cherry-picked, and contradictory to that current state of reading science. Classroom teachers deserve the autonomy to interrogate reading science, understand the individual needs of all their students, and then the teaching and learning conditions to serve those students with evidence-based practice.

Saturday, February 25, 2023, 10:15 -11:15 

Panel: Carving a Path Forward: Equity, Neuroscience, Policy Mandates and Literacy Education 

The Politics of Teaching Reading, Paul Thomas

Educators Have Only One (Bad) Political Choice: 2022

In 2022, I still stand by my posts from 2012 ands 2015, included below—that educators still have no political party that supports teachers and universal public education.

However, today, I have a caveat that is vital, even urgent.

Not voting stopped being an option after 2016 and the rise of Trumpublicans.

Voting for the best candidate regardless of political party stopped being an option after the end of Trump’s presidency.

Educators cannot vote for any Republican because the Republican Party has no interest in education or teaching as a profession (in part, because more that 80% of educators are women, and the Republican Party is also hostile to women—as well as children).

Over the past couple years, 100% of anti-CRT bills, curriculum gag orders, parental trigger bills, and a variety of efforts to de-professionalize teaching and erode public education have been proposed by Republicans—only.

There is now only one choice for educators: we must be politically active and we cannot endorse or vote for any Republicans until the ship of democracy is righted, saved from capsizing, and then turned onto a better course for education, educators, all people, and our individual freedoms.

If you read below, you will note that Democrats have failed educators and education; however, some, maybe many, have been willing to fight against the recent assaults on education by Republicans. A few governors and many representatives have listened and resisted legislation that is aimed at ending academic freedom, critical thinking, and teaching children the facts of the country and world they live in.

There is no longer room for calling for no politics from educators.

There is no longer room to tip-toe around identifying the dangers of one political party, Republicans, and admitting we have only one choice, Democrats.

This is a means to a greater end—where we have two (or more) political parties that value and honor academic freedom, public education, and educators as professionals.

However, to reach that end, we cannot pretend that “both sides” are harmful to education in the same ways and to the same degrees. That simply is the sort of fake news that Republicans are using to dismantle education and teaching.

In 2022, educators still have no political party, but we also have no choice except to unseat every Republican that we can in order to rebuild a more perfect union.


NOTE: Below is a repost from 23 August 2012 with small edits. With great regret, I see no reason to write something new since the Chicago mayoral election and the announcement of Hillary Clinton entering the presidential election have offered clear proof educators still have no political party. I do, however, offer some important additions after the repost from W.E.B. Du Bois and George Carlin. I recommend them highly.

$$$

Educators (Still) Have No Political Party

For about thirty years now, public education as well as its teachers and students have been the focus of an accountability era driven by recurring calls for and the implementation of so-called higher standards and incessant (and now “next generation”) testing. At two points during this era, educators could blame Ronald Reagan’s administration for feeding the media frenzy around the misleading A Nation at Risk and George W. Bush’s administration for federalizing the accountability era with No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—both under Republican administrations.

For those who argued that Republicans and Democrats were different sides of the same political coin beholden to corporate interests, education advocates could point to Republicans with an accusatory finger and claim the GOP was anti-public education while also endorsing Democrats as unwavering supporters of public education. To claim Republicans and Democrats were essentially the same was left to extremists and radicals, it seemed.

As we approach the fall of 2015 and the next presidential election, however, educators and advocates for public education have found that the position of the extremists—Republicans and Democrats are the same—has come true under the Barack Obama administration.

Educators have no political party to support because no political party supports educators, public education, or teachers unions.

Democrats and Republicans: Our Orwellian Future Is Now

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”

1984, George Orwell

Behind the historical mask that Democrats support strongly public education and even teachers specifically and workers broadly, the Obama administration has presented a powerful and misleading education campaign that is driven by Obama as the good cop and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as the bad cop. Obama Good Cop handles the discourse that appeals to educators by denouncing the rising test culture in 2011:

What is true, though, is, is that we have piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a standardized test being given occasionally just to give a baseline of where kids are at. Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn’t a high-stakes test. It wasn’t a test where they had to panic.

Yet, simultaneously, Secretary Duncan Bad Cop was endorsing and the USDOE was implementing Race to the Top, creating provisions for states to opt out of NCLB, and endorsing Common Core—each of which increases both the amount of standardized testing and the high-stakes associated with those tests by expanding the accountability from schools and students to teachers.

Under Obama, Democratic education policy and agendas, embodied by Duncan, have created a consistently inconsistent message. During his campaign mode for a second term, Obama once again offered conflicting claims about education—endorsing a focus on reducing class size (despite huge cuts for years in state budgets that have eliminated teachers and increased class size, which many education reformers endorse) and making a pitch to support teachers unions and even increasing spending on education, leading Diane Ravitch to ponder:

Well, it is good to hear the rhetoric. That’s a change. We can always hope that he means it. But that, of course, would mean ditching Race to the Top and all that absurd rightwing rhetoric about how schools can fix poverty, all by themselves.

Throughout his presidency, Obama’s discourse has been almost directly contradicted by Duncan’s discourse and the USDOE’s policies. Obama tended to state that teachers were the most important in-school influence on student learning while Duncan tends to continue omitting the “in-school” qualifier, but these nuances of language are of little value since the USDOE under Obama has an agenda nearly indistinguishable from Republican agendas:

  • Incentivizing all states to adopt CC and the necessary increase in testing and textbook support (and thus, profit) to follow.
  • Endorsing market dynamics and school choice by embracing the charter school movement, specifically charters such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) that practice “no excuses” ideologies for school reform and school cultures.
  • Criticizing directly and indirectly public school teachers and perpetuating the “bad” teacher myth by calling for changes in teacher evaluations and compensation, disproportionately based on student test scores.
  • Funding and endorsing the spread of test-based accountability to departments and colleges of education involved in teacher certification.
  • Funding and endorsing the de-professionalization of teaching through support for Teach for America.
  • Appealing to the populist message about choice by failing to confront the rise of “parent trigger” laws driven by corporate interests posing as concerned parents.

If my claim that Republicans and Democrats are different sides of the same misguided education reform coin still appears to be the claim of an extremist, the last point above should be examined carefully.

Note, for example, the connection between the issues endorsed by Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and the anti-union sentiment joined with endorsing the next misleading Waiting for “Superman”Won’t Back Down.

The Democratic National Convention was home to DFER, Parent Revolution, and Students First to promote Won’t Back Down as if this garbled film is a documentary—including a platform for Michelle Rhee.

There is nothing progressive about the education reform agenda under the Obama administration, nothing progressive about the realities behind Obama’s or Duncan’s discourse, nothing progressive about Rhee, Gates, or the growing legions of celebrity education reformers.

If the Democratic Party were committed to a progressive education platform, we would hear and see policy seeking ways to fund fully public schools, rejecting market solutions to social problems, supporting the professionalization of teachers, embracing the power and necessity of collective bargaining and tenure, protecting students from the negative impact of testing and textbook corporations, distancing themselves from Rhee-like conservatives in progressive clothing, and championing above everything else democratic ideals.

Instead, the merging of the education agenda between Democrats and Republicans is Orwellian, but it real, as Ravitch warned early in Obama’s administration:

This rhetoric represented a remarkable turn of events. It showed how the politics of education had been transformed. . . .Slogans long advocated by policy wonks on the right had migrated to and been embraced by policy wonks on the left. When Democrat think tanks say their party should support accountability and school choice, while rebuffing the teachers’ unions, you can bet that something has fundamentally changed in the political scene. (p. 22)

Still today in 2015, educators have no political party to support because no political party supports educators—and this is but one symptom of a larger disease killing the hope and promise of democracy in the U.S.

This tragic fact is the inevitable result of the historical call for teachers not to be political. Now that educators have no major party to support, the failure of that call is more palpable than ever.

Both the faux “not political” pose and playing the partisan political game fail educators, public education, and the democratic hope of the U.S.

Why I Won’t Vote, W.E.B. Dubois, The Nation, 20 October 1956

Gun Apologists’ Excuses Lack Logic and Evidence

A mass shooting in Buffalo. Another racist massacre reminding us of the AME mass shooting in Charleston, SC.

Then another mass school shooting of elementary children in Texas. Reminding us of Sandy Hook.

Minutes after President Joe Biden addressed the nation about the cancer of mass and gun shootings in the US, another shooting.

The gun culture of violence and the willingness to simply live with that death and violence in the US has become a recurring and very dark part of the cultural parody that is the US: ‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.

The Onion has run that story so often that after recent mass shootings, The Onion ran exclusively all these posts on their main page.

This is the US, this is who we are:

America exceptionalism is a gun, or more accurately, all guns for anyone and everyone all the time—regardless of the carnage in the wake of worshipping an antiquated Second Amendment instead of community values and community safety.

Republicans, libertarians, and conservatives double down after each massacre with a baffling and nearly comical barrage of blame for anything except guns.

After children were slaughtered in Texas with an AR-15, Republicans began to blame doors—calling not for gun control, but for schools having only one door.

Regardless of the specifics of the mass shootings and excessive gun violence, Republicans and conservatives are beholden to the NRA, and not humanity. As a result, the blame and excuses defy logic and evidence.

First, the US is an extreme outlier in gun violence, mass shootings, and school shootings when compared to similar wealthy countries (see above) but also among states depending on gun laws:

And facts about gun violence clearly support that something can be done:

The evidence-based reality is that US gun violence and mass/school shootings are significantly correlated with the amount of guns in the US, the ease of access to guns in the US, and the types of guns and ammunition people can use.

Yet, again, gun apologists in the US will blame anything except gun.

Here, then, is the logic problem for gun apologists.

Is gun violence actually about mental illness?

First, people with mental illness are more likely to experience violence as victims than the rest of the population (see here).

Second, all of the countries listed in the chart at the beginning also have populations with mental illness, but not the excessive gun violence, not the mass and school shootings.

To that second point, all of the countries with nearly no gun violence or mass/school shootings have all of the social and pop culture experiences gun apologists blame for gun violence—access to video games and movies/series with violence, increases in so-called non-traditional family structures, changing cultures and shifting demographics.

One of the most illogical and contradictory arguments made by gun apologists is that banning guns will only hurt people following the law, that criminals will access guns regardless. These are the same people banning abortion, banning books, banning curriculum, by the way.

The Republican resistance to gun regulation, if extrapolated beyond guns, would mean there is no reason to have any law. It is insincere, factually untrue (regulations do work), and simply dishonest—since Republicans rush to ban and regulate many aspects of our lives based on their ideology and beliefs.

And finally, many Republicans and conservatives blame a lack of religion or the deterioration of religion in the US.

However, again return to the first chart above, Japan and the Czech Republican are two of the three countries with the highest population identified as atheist; the Czech Republic is over 70% atheist/agnostic. Yet, Japan is the least gun violent country (and Japan is also a country that has adopted much of US pop culture) with the Czech Republic among the least violent as well.

Here are two facts that the US and our political leaders must accept.

Gun violence, mass shootings, and school shootings in the US are the result of conscious political decisions and choice; different choices can and will make a difference (many other countries addressed successfully gun violence and mass shootings).

The amount of guns in the US, access to guns in the US, and the types of guns and ammunition available—these are the strongest correlations to gun violence and mass/school shootings.

In the US, guns matter more than any human. It is the political cancer of the country.

“No way to prevent this” is the unwavering motto of the Republican Party.

This is a lie, one that is a death sentence for innocent people as you read this.


Recommended

Opinion | 6 solutions to gun violence that could work

My Open Letters: 5 May 2022

Dear 20-Somethings:

First, speaking as a person in his 60s, I am sorry for this country being dismantled in front of you, the country you are entering as the newest wave of adults.

I spent my 20s in the 1980s, the Reagan era, the lingering era of AIDS. That was not the country or world that I wanted. My youth was, in fact, a time that inspired in part Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta.

My youth, too, was spent with an awareness of the tyranny of the Right, the authoritarian conservative threat that was poised to slip into fascism.

But I also know, adults tend not to listen to the young—children, teens, 20-somethings. Having been a teacher across five decades, I have spent a great deal of my life with young people because I genuinely love young people.

Young people are hope.

Young people represent promises that the rest of us have failed to honor.

Over the last 20 years teaching college, I have watched as young people in their late teens and early 20s have shifted. I am not a “kids today” person; I don’t believe young people are somehow worse now than in some manufactured good old days.

I am routinely stunned at how much smarter young people are now than when I was young.

But I am also aware young people don’t vote; like me, young people are often cynical that the system will work for them.

I have never been a member of a political party.

Republicans are morally bankrupt, and Democrats are spineless. Like W.E.B. Du Bois and George Carlin, I was a non-voter for many years myself.

But the rise of Trump changed that for me. I have conceded that all we have is an imperfect system. The great paradox is that we must use the imperfect system to create a better one.

We—and by “we” I mean not just Americans but humanity—need young people to be the change we failed to be.

My students have often groaned when I turn to literature, but I cannot think of anything better than this to explain the situation before us: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity” (“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats).

Can you be the best with passionate intensity in the name of a kinder world, a world where we guarantee freedom and the pursuit of happiness to all, instead of leveraging our power to deny, to demonize, and to hate?


Dear RNC:

You are the party of censorship.

You are the party of hate.

You are, ultimately, the party of lies.

There is no saving that party, but Republicans must not be allowed to spread that hatred in the name of righteousness.

You are spitting in the faces of the idealized Founding Fathers you idolize. You spend your time in office denying freedom to people not like you (white men).

There is no question for you. You are power-hungry authoritarians.

This is who you are.


Dear Anti-Abortion Advocates:

I do not believe that the anti-abortion movement is about pro-life. I do not believe the anti-abortion movement is about babies or children.

I recognize the anti-abortion movement as a forced-birth movement that is anti-women.

But I am willing to be wrong, to admit I am wrong, and to join with those of you who genuinely want to reduce unwanted births, and thus, abortions.

Criminalizing abortion and women does not reduce abortion. Criminalizing abortion and women only increases unsafe abortions and increases violence and death for women.

There are, however, kind and even Christ-like ways to reduce dramatically unwanted pregnancies and abortion:

  • Call for universal healthcare.
  • Call for fully publicly funded contraception.
  • Call for comprehensive sex education.
  • Demand that all the promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are extended regardless of gender.

If you choose punishment, you are anti-woman, not anti-abortion.

If you choose punishment, you are abdicating any moral authority you believe you have.

I do not believe that the anti-abortion movement is about pro-life. I do not believe the anti-abortion movement is about babies or children.

So far, you have proven me right. Can you prove me wrong?


Dear White Women:

A majority of white women voted for Trump. Twice.

White women voted for a man on record laughing about sexual assault, a man credibly accused of sexual assault across his entire life, including a former wife.

But even worse than that, by remaining loyal to the Republican Party, white women are complicit in anti-women legislation, and an anti-woman Supreme Court.

Margaret Atwood, a white woman who has been recently criticized for her own faults, held up to the world the horror of women being complicit in the patriarchy.

It is a terrible thing to blame a victim, which Atwood dramatizes often in her novel in powerful and disturbing ways. It is a terrible thing to blame a victim, as Adrienne Rich captures in a poem:

And it is a shallow thing to demand that the oppressed rise up to change an oppressive world.

Although men are the problem, white men, white women have entrenched themselves so deeply in the power of white men that being complicit demands that white women join with the rest of us to say “No, this is not the country we want.”

Can you set aside your selfishness, your security, and do the right thing?


Dear DNC:

The world is on fire, and you want my money?

The world is on fire, and you have refused to even drive the firetruck out of the station, much less use the firehose in some sort of effort to end this nightmare.

You see the world being on fire as a political opportunity for you.

How is that different than the RNC setting the world on fire as a political opportunity for them?

I am not a “both sides” thinker. I cannot act as if the DNC and RNC are equally failing our country, failing humanity.

But the DNC is failing everything that matters.

Cancel student loan debt.

Codify Roe v. Wade.

Pass progressive legislation.

Can you act in a way that ends this raging fire, or are you content to simply shout, “The world is burning (so send us your donations)”?

I know that Republicans will aggressively continue being horrible humans, but I do not trust that Democrats are willing to do the right thing because the world being on fire creates political opportunities for both parties.

Just as Republicans are Republicans first, power mongers, Democrats seem trapped in that same conservative mindset.

Can you be Americans first, or better yet, humans first?

Dear Legislators: Your Job Is Funding, Not Dictating, Education

Let’s start with a thought experiment.

Your elected state legislators are confronted with a series of bills addressing crumbling bridges and roads in your state. After a period of typical partisan debate, a final bill is proposed that not only funds new bridge and road construction, but also dictates how those bridges and roads must be constructed.

Most of the legislators who wrote and voted on the bill have laws degrees or career experiences in business; none of the legislators are structural engineers, and thus, no expertise in constructing bridges or roads.

Structural engineers and those whose profession is building bridges and roads note that the legislation is dangerous, ill conceived, and certainly will result in bridges and roads that will cost people’s lives.

None the less, the bill passes and then is signed by your governor.

This thought experiment likely seems outlandish, but it represents a key distinction about the role of legislators as that impacts public institutions (in this hypothetical situation, our highway/road infrastructure). In brief, it is the role of legislators to fund and ensure at least adequate if not excellent public institutions; it is not the role of legislators to dictate how those public institutions should be realized since a legislative body often lacks the expertise to create those mandates.

This brings me to my primary area of expertise, education.

Specifically since the last months of the Trump administration, there has been a wave of state-level legislation censoring curriculum, banning books and ideas, and mandating all aspects of formal education (curriculum and instruction)—often including mechanisms for parents to trigger censorship and even dismissal of teachers and professors based on personal ideologies and perceived “discomfort” by students.

This partisan political trend fits into a larger contemporary and century-long history of legislators mandating not just that education by provided but what and how that education must include.

As one example, since about 2018, states have proposed and passed very detailed and prescriptive reading legislation, a movement that fits into the accountability era of education that began in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

My home state of South Carolina is a powerful example of good intentions that have gone terribly wrong.

Under the guidance of then-governor (and future Secretary of Education under Bill Clinton) Richard Riley, SC established the now-familiar structure of K-12 public education, broadly labeled as accountability—state-level standards (approved by legislators), state-level high-stakes testing (approved by legislators), and various consequences for schools and teachers meeting or not those mandated parameters.

Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, bolstered by the misleading and partisan A Nation at Risk report released under Ronald Reagan, governors increasingly discovered that focusing on education reform paid significant political dividends (regardless of political party).

The narrative was simple, although deeply misleading: U.S. public education is failing students and the country because of the inherent flaws of the education establishment; therefore, it is the responsibility of elected officials to mandate all aspects of education.

By the mid-1990s into the 2000s, George W. Bush pushed the envelope of being an education governor onto the national stage; Bush created another false narrative around his so-called “Texas Miracle” (along with Rod Paige as Texas superintendent of education) that helped propel Bush to the White House and then take the state-level template for education reform to the federal level with No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

While NCLB floundered, never producing the results promised in the same ways that state-level accountability never fulfilled promises, the template was set for governors and presidents; the Obama administration (embodied by Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education) doubled-down on the Bush/ Paige/ Spellings model, in fact.

In many ways, the current wave of curriculum gag orders and book censorship (as well as the copy-cat legislation imposing a misguided “science of reading” mandate on reading instruction) is the logical progression within that accountability approach to education.

In that model, authority is centered in elected officials, and expertise is trumped by that political authority.

Since the 1980s, accountability legislation and political micromanaging have not improved education in the U.S. (at regular intervals, the same crisis discourse is repeated, followed by the same strategies for reform, just under different political leaders), but that model has served political careers well at the expense of education, democracy, and now, academic freedom.

Legislators, then, have replaced their democratic responsibilities for funding and ensuring public institutions with using education, for example, as a political football for their own careers.

Just as legislators should fund but not mandate how to build our roads and bridges, they should fully fund but not dictate how or what teachers teach—especially when their mandates are serving ideological agendas and not teaching or learning in a country that claims to respect individual liberty, democracy, and academic freedom.

Bully Politics and Political Theater in an Era of Racial Shift

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) recently bullied students about wearing masks as he prepared to give a press conference. DeSantis called wearing masks “Covid theater,” but it seems more likely his petulant behavior is his own political theater since DeSantis immediately turned the embarrassing behavior into a fundraising gimmick.

That a sitting governor publicly and brazenly chastised students—behavior that no student would be allowed toward other students or adults while in school—is a snapshot of the broader attack on K-16 education in the U.S., also driven entirely by Republicans.

Curriculum gag orders, anti-CRT legislation, and book bans all seek to censor any mentioning of race or racism as well as topics related to gender or sexuality (the latter repeatedly identified by Republicans as “pornography”).

Copy-cat legislation across Republican-led states is far less about teaching and learning than about the tremendous racial shift occurring in the U.S.—and the immediate tension in K-12 public education because of that shift.

The 2020 Census has revealed, as reported in USA Today: “The white, non-Hispanic population, without another race, decreased by 8.6% since 2010, according to the new data from the 2020 census. The U.S. is now 57.8% white, 18.7% Hispanic, 12.4% Black and 6% Asian.”

In short, the white racial majority in the U.S. is shrinking quickly, and the future of racial balance in the U.S. is now reflected in K-12 education, where white students constitute less than half of students:

However, K-12 education remains a very white space except for that student population.

Almost 80% of teachers are white, and despite the false claims made in curriculum gag orders and anti-CRT legislation, K-12 curriculum and texts remain disproportionately white:

Research on U.S. history textbooks indicate White, European Americans are featured in over half of pictorials and illustrations. In some cases, it is more than 80 percent. Representation of people from BIPOC backgrounds are rarely featured, with some ethnic groups featured as low as 1 percent.

These racial and ethnic representations do not reflect demographics given in the 2020 U.S. Census, where 61.6 percent of the population is identified as White, 18.7 percent Hispanic or Latinx, 12.4 percent Black or African American, 6 percent Asian, 1.1 percent American Indian and Alaska Native, 0.2 percent Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, 8.4 percent some other racial population, and 10.2 percent multiracial….

In sum, studies on books and other materials reveal that White characters are more prominent than BIPOC characters. The data suggest that it is likely that students who identify as White will see mirrors of themselves more often than students from BIPOC communities.

The Representation of Social Groups in U. S. Educational Materials and Why it Matters, Amanda LaTasha Armstrong

DeSantis, then, personifies the resulting bully politics of Republicans as a response to the racial shift occurring in the U.S.

An examination of bullying in academia offers an important frame for understanding the larger phenomenon of bully politics:

What makes bullying an unethical, yet effective, means to rise through the ranks? An emerging body of research suggests that mediocre academics in particular resort to bullying, to remove their competition. Experimental research has shown that when male hierarchies are disrupted by women, this incites hostile behaviour specifically from poorly performing men, because they stand to lose the most.

Members of underrepresented groups report they are the targets of bullying with the intent to sabotage their careers. Some anecdotes suggest that bullies spring into action when their targets become too successful for their liking — and thus viable competition.

How bullying becomes a career tool, Susanne Tauber and Morteza Mahmoudi

This unpacking of bullying in academia fits well into understanding the bully politics of Republicans, often mediocre white men, like DeSantis, who feel threatened and cultivate political capital by stoking racial animosity through misinformation.

As I have noted before, K-12 public education is quite conservative and, as shown above, very white. While curriculum gag orders have characterized teachers and schools as hostile to white students (legislating bans on making students uncomfortable)—without evidence—and rampant with CRT—which isn’t occurring in K-12 schools—few people are directly exposing why bully politics is on the rise—the significant racial shift in society and schools in tension with the static whiteness of teachers and curriculum.

Unlike the ways in which Republicans have characterized U.S. schooling, Ranita Ray has witnessed a much different reality for students:

What I discovered was rampant racism, cruelty, and indifference from teachers working inside public schools. Most of the teachers I observed were not, in fact, teaching about America’s racist history but instead were perpetuating everyday racial violence against their students inside the classroom. While the idea is not prominent in public discourse, I am not alone in finding teacher racism to be an everyday presence in the American classroom. One recent study, for example, found that teachers hold as much implicit and explicit pro-white racial bias as nonteachers do. Education scholar Michael Dumas has written about teacher racism and Black suffering inside the classroom, showing that these attitudes have concrete outcomes. And students themselves know this. Social media is replete with students talking about teacher racism, and they have often taken to the streets to protest it.

It Never Seems to Be a Good Time to Talk About Teachers’ Racism

The irony of the racial shift spurring bully politics lies in ground zero, the backlash against the 1619 Project, which represents not a rewriting of history but a confronting of what history is—stories of the past shaped by who ever has power.

The facts of history do not necessarily change but the power behind what facts are told and why does shift. The 1619 Project changes what is centered in the telling of U.S. history (moving it away from the idealized founding and toward the grim reality of the institution of slavery)—in a similar way to the shifting racial centering of the U.S. in the 2020s.

Republicans are scrambling not to protect history or Truth, but to further entrench a mythology, an aspirational white-washed version of the country.

The impetus behind the 1619 Project and diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts is well expressed in Adrienne Rich’s poem:

I came to explore the wreck.

…the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

“Diving into the Wreck”

The facts of history and even the present—and not the myths—are disturbing, uncomfortable (“the drowned face always staring”).

Some of us, like the speaker in Rich’s poem, accept the discomfort as motivation to work toward a better world for everyone.

Others are petulant, bullies, carelessly grabbing all their toys and threatening to go home.

DeSantis and the other mediocre Republicans are playing political theater but their bully politics is all too real and has devastating consequences for academic freedom and democracy.

Histrionics characterizing masks as “Covid theater” are masking white fear that has reduced the Republican Party to bully politics in the service of a misguided whiteness—and to the exclusion of democracy and basic human dignity.

“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

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.

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].