The lecture series is titled “The Long Civil Rights Movement,” and the talk by Flagler University history professor J. Michael Butler hasn’t changed in 20 years. Through his lecture, Butler helps Florida educators look beyond the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and use a wide lens when teaching during Black History Month, from the dawn of Jim Crow to today’s fights over police brutality. In two decades, the lesson never provoked even the slightest controversy.
But the political climate around Butler’s specialty — the history of U.S. race relations — has changed a lot. So the professor wasn’t completely shocked this month when administrators for the Osceola County School District abruptly canceled his planned Saturday sessions with their teachers.
The district’s superintendent told those instructors in an email, as reported by NBC News, that Butler’s lecture needed more scrutiny “in light of the current conversations across our state and in our community about critical race theory,” and she expressed concern about potential “negative distractions.” The cancellation came as Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, is making his jihad against “critical race theory” — an often-misused phrase to describe teachings about racism — a linchpin of his reelection drive, and as state lawmakers in Tallahassee weigh a bill that would block schools from making students feel “discomfort” over race.
While not surprised, Butler told me by phone Thursday that “I was disappointed, I was mad, I was depressed. ... It went in cycles.” The Flagler professor is suddenly on the front lines of a new paranoia about classroom teaching, not just in Florida but across much of America. “I contend you can’t understand what it means to be an American without this history,” he said. “This is the quintessential American story — how do we guarantee equality for all of our citizens?”
What happened to Butler in Osceola County would have been noteworthy as an isolated incident, but as anyone who even half-watches the news or spends a few minutes on social media in January 2022 could tell you, it was hardly an isolated incident. Several times a day now comes word of a new bill that would ban classroom discussions around antiracism or books on LGBTQ+ issues or sex education. There’s regularly news of a school district ousting a teacher or a principal accused of radical views, or an acclaimed book being banned from schools or the local library.
In a season of free-speech outrages, arguably the worst moment came this month when school board members in rural McMinn County, Tenn., voted unanimously — on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, no less — to ban author Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking, Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic narrative, Maus, about the Nazi slaughter of Jews, claiming the book contained some dirty words and nudity (in depicting a concentration camp). Spiegelman himself called the move “Orwellian.” Many raced to condemn the almost unbearable irony of censorship that prevents kids from learning the history of a book-burning regime.
Yet that wasn’t the only grim echo of 20th-century authoritarian regimes. In Virginia, new GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin has metaphorically ripped off his nice-guy suburban fleece to reveal the greasepaint of a culture warrior. Among his inaugural moves to place government restrictions on classroom instruction, the new governor created an email tip line for parents to report “divisive tactics in their schools” — yet another clap-back to the paranoia of the Sen. Joe McCarthy-led “Red Scare” of the 1950s, if not worse.
This right-wing freak-out over what they claim is children becoming indoctrinated with ideas about racism or homophobia feels like a new McCarthyism. But when I spoke this week to Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education for the writers’ advocacy group PEN America, he said the pace of what his group calls “gag orders” against classroom instructors is the worst since the 1920s’ crusade against teaching evolution that climaxed with the infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial.” That trial took place in Tennessee just 28 miles west of where Maus was banned in the 2020s.
PEN America has been tracking various state bills and proposals to restrict classroom speech since last year, but with the arrival of 2022 that pace has become dizzying — three new bills are introduced every day. Friedman said some of these are sloppy or practically duplicates of each other. That suggests a lack of planning but also a race by right-wing politicians to jump on the bandwagon launched by Youngkin, who won an election upset in 2021 largely by running against how race is taught in public schools.
“Everybody wants to claim they were the one who fought this fight,” Friedman said. But this political free-for-all has also meant an ever-widening target in terms of what topics the classroom critics want to declare as off-limits, and what sorts of books are suddenly getting yanked from library shelves.
In one moment an acclaimed novel about the psychology of racism by the late Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye, was removed in the Wentzville, Mo., school district. In the next moment comes news that a committee in the Arizona legislature passed a bill to ban any depictions of homosexuality. That’s why it’s called a frenzy.
In Oklahoma, a lawmaker is pushing to allow parents to demand the removal of any book from a school library and collect a $10,000-a-day bounty if it doesn’t happen within 30 days, a riff on the scheme that essentially banned abortion in Texas. But the overall impact is not really about the sometimes-wacky specifics of some of these schemes, but instead, about the chilling psychological pressure on teachers. PEN America’s Friedman bluntly described it as “an effort to intimidate and scare,” adding: “This could crush the spirit of the American public school.”
Indeed, but why now? In the short view, wild, angry resistance to the new regime has become a constant feature of American politics — the Tea Party in response to a Black president, the Women’s March and resistance in response to Donald Trump, and now this Salem-style witch hunt across America’s classrooms after President Biden’s election. It’s a marriage between growing parental angst around schools that started with the chaos of the pandemic, and the ability of Republican politicians to exploit those concerns and campaign in the fall on something that masks their otherwise do-nothing agenda.
But more broadly, this is the latest skirmish in a long war that began with the expansion of educational opportunities after the 1944 GI. Bill and the ensuing baby boom, was followed by the campus protests of the 1960s and the inevitable backlash, and continued right up through 2020′s George Floyd protest marches. At the heart of the matter is this key question: What is U.S. education really for ... to create a skilled but compliant workforce, or broadly educated free thinkers?
Modern America is bitterly divided between a left heavily composed of college grads flashing their credentials and an angry, resentful right wing of folks largely lacking diplomas. And after 2020′s marches, conservative parents have come to see schools as the battleground for preventing their kids from joining the other side. The result is the real indoctrination: the unlearning of American history.
The irony, as many have noted, is that as this conservative embrace of censorship with the full weight of the government behind it turns into an all-out war, it makes a mockery of the right’s simultaneous claims that the great threat to American free speech is what they call “cancel culture” by the left. I agree that there are times when some progressives have erred and gone too far in pushing to silence opposing views, and I’ve called out the worst excesses. But can you really compare a few liberal arts undergrads shouting down a campus speaker with the coercive power of large states like Florida or Texas initiating this reign of terror upon public classrooms? The First Amendment exists to protect our liberty from a tyrannical government — exactly the regimes that DeSantis, Youngkin, and Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas are seeking to impose.
For a historian like Flagler’s Butler, the parallels to the worst excesses of McCarthyism are all too apt. “If we create a fear of the teaching of one topic, we can do the same for any topic, in any state,” he told me. “For those of us who prize intellectual freedom, that’s frightening.”
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