Republicans who hope to take control of Congress in November have latched onto an issue they believe will carry them to victory: education.
But it’s not what you think. They aren’t advocating for more money for public schools or unveiling plans to improve education. Instead, they plan to call for censorship of books they don’t like.
This strategy comes in the wake of the victory of Republican Glenn Youngkin, who was elected governor of Virginia on Nov. 2, in part by attacking a novel used in some public schools in Fairfax County. The book, Beloved by Toni Morrison, is a searing look at the effects of chattel slavery in the South. Apparently, its disturbing theme was too much for the tender sensibilities of some conservatives in the state’s schools. The mother of one young man said the novel gave her son nightmares.
Perhaps emboldened by Youngkin’s win, members of the Spotsylvania County, Va., school board voted unanimously in November to remove and survey all the books in the school’s libraries and ban any deemed “sexually explicit.” Two members, Kirk Twigg and Rabih Abuismail, expressed support for literally burning certain books.
The following week, the board voted 5-2 to drop the plan after members of the community packed a school board meeting and made it clear they weren’t on board with the book-burning plan.
That hasn’t slowed down censors in other parts of the country. In Goddard, Kan., education officials removed 29 books from circulation after a parent complained about language in one of them. Among the titles pulled were several novels, including Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. “Fences,” an award-winning play by August Wilson, was also pulled, as was They Called Themselves the K.K.K, a nonfiction history of the racist hate group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has issued an executive order requiring education officials to ferret out books containing “obscene content.” State Rep. Matt Krause (R-Tarrant County) would go further and pull any book that is judged to “contain material that might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex or convey that a student, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” a standard so expansive one wonders if there would be anything left on the shelves. Krause’s personal hit list includes 850 books.
Looking at the roll of targeted books, one can’t help but be struck by the fact that many of the titles deal with LGBTQ themes or racial issues. Books for young adults that discuss issues of human sexuality are often controversial, but curbing access is unacceptable. LGBTQ teens need to see themselves reflected in literature, or find nonfiction resources for factual information.
Attacks on books about racial issues are especially telling. We have actually come to the point where even factual books about America’s troubled racial history are under fire. Some people, it seems, would rather their children be taught comforting lies than unpleasant truths. But just as creationists can’t rewrite the science curriculum because they reject evolution, we can’t let historical revisionists paper over the racism in America’s past.
Christian nationalists and their political allies are behind many of these attacks on young people’s freedom to learn. But as the events in Spotsylvania County prove, the censors won’t win if enough people stand up to them.
For a long time, religious extremists have tried to control what we see, read and experience. There was a time when they were pretty successful at it, but that day is long past. Nevertheless, they keep attacking books, films, magazines and other media that offend or challenge their religious beliefs. And it’s never enough for people who feel this way to restrict access for their own children: They are bound and determined to control what other people’s children learn as well.
Parental involvement in public schools is always welcome, but that doesn’t mean parents will gain veto power over all aspects of the curriculum. Informed parents who understand that they are true partners with the public schools, not antagonists, are the key to defeating the censors.
It’s also essential that they stand up strongly to those who want our schools to become incubators for ignorance – each and every time.