The Right’s War on Woke Schooling

As the left changes education from above (often for the worse, granted), the right has been revving up in backlash. In Tennessee a few days ago, the McMinn County School board removed Maus from its curriculum, and just yesterday in Missouri, the Wentzville School board banned Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Protests against school censorship sometimes work: in Pennsylvania back in the fall, the Central York school board reversed its decision to ban anti-racism books and resources in response to student objections. Victories like that are nice but rare; for the most part, what school boards decide is where the buck stops.

Part of me actually welcomes censorship attempts, because on the national level they inevitably backfire. In the case of Maus, the sales are already soaring. The same thing happened last spring, when the wokes went crazy over Dr. Seuss: Seuss books suddenly became bestsellers again. There’s no better way to ensure readership, boost sales, increase library circulation, and reattain relevance than to try denying access to something. Whether in service to the left or the right.

Andrew Sullivan has an excellent piece about The Right’s Ugly War on Woke Schooling. Worth making the time to read, and here are the highlights.

“What we’re seeing now is the reaction to this left-wing power grab. And — guess what? — it’s a right-wing power grab. If the left has stealthily changed public education from above, the right has now used the only power they have to fight back — political clout in state legislatures. 122 separate bills have been introduced since January 2021, 71 in the last three weeks alone. They all regulate speech by teachers in public schools, but many are now also reaching into higher education — a much more fraught area — and outright book banning. The bills are rushed; some appear well-intentioned; others are nuts; many are very vague, inviting lawsuits to clarify what they can mean in practice. In most cases, if passed, they will surely chill debate of race and sex and history — and increasingly of gender, sex and homosexuality — in high schools. And that’s a bad thing for liberal education…

“One important point, often elided in the press: This is not about free speech as such. Regulating curricula and teaching methods in public schools is unavoidable. No one argues that K-12 teachers can teach anything: the content is always subject to political consensus and democratic input. And it could be argued that the overhauled curricula and teaching methods in recent years were imposed without democratic input, and that this is a healthy, democratic correction.

“And in some ways, it is. It’s a good thing that parents are more engaged with their kids’ education, running for school boards, examining curricula, exposing extremist teachers and administrators. And I absolutely get where the parents are coming from. What else are they supposed to do, confronted with a woke educational establishment that lies to them, and brooks no compromise?

“The trouble is that banning courses restricts discourse, and does not expand it. It gives woke racialist theories the sheen of ‘forbidden knowledge.’ It removes the moral high-ground from those seeking to defend liberal learning from ideologues of any variety. And it sets an early lesson for kids that the right response to bad arguments is to get authorities to suppress them — exactly what the woke believe — and not to marshal arguments that refute them.

“A better way is to insist that any course or lesson that involves critical theory must include an alternative counterpoint. If you have to teach Nikole Hannah-Jones, add a section on Zora Neale Hurston; for every Kendi tract, add McWhorter; for every Michael Eric Dyson screed, offer a Glenn Loury lecture. Same elsewhere. No gender studies course without a course on biological sex and gender-critical viewpoints. No ‘queer theory’ class without texts from non-leftists, who are not falsifying history or asserting that homosexuality is socially constructed all the way down. This strategy doesn’t ban anything; it adds something. It demands that schools make sure they’re helping kids think for themselves.

“When I wrote back in early 2016 that Trump’s election would be an extinction-level event for liberal democracy, this is what I meant: the illiberal left and illiberal right constantly upping the ante in a cold civil war of raw strength and power, culminating in various varieties of performative or real violence, and constitutional crises. The war is particularly acute when the elites have replaced liberalism with the successor ideology, and the populist right wants to go full post-liberal as well, with all the ugly and authoritarian excesses that will entail.”

5 thoughts on “The Right’s War on Woke Schooling

  1. There’s a difference between censorship and removing something from the curriculum. If a Biology class were to remove Creationism from the curriculum, that’s not really censorship – it’s just saying “this is not something that is integral to our children’s education.”

    Maybe I don’t have the full picture, but from what I gleaned from your links, it doesn’t sound like anything is truly being censored. In that article, it says the Wentzville School Board “banned The Bluest Eye,” yet in the next paragraph it proceeds to say “‘By all means, buy the book your child,’ (…) Sandy Garber said during the meeting.” In the CNN article, it says the “diversity list had previously been banned from the curriculum.” In your CBR article, it say Maus had been “removed from the curriculum.” None of these cases sound like outright censorship, so much as they are school boards merely exercising their right to decide their own curricula. Which, to me, sounds like business as usual.

    When I think of “book censorship,” I think of Fahreinheit 451, or Maoist China, where possession of a book will actually get you put in a camp or get you disappeared or something. Or book burning. You can disagree that some of these “banned” books shouldn’t be on the curriculum but regardless, what’s happening today hardly sounds like a hard “ban” in the truest sense of the word.

    If the Republicans were to start burning books, putting people in gulags for reading Malala’s autobiography, and petitioning publishers to stop publishing certain authors, then yes, I would wholeheartedly agree: that’s outright censorship and needs to be opposed. But as far as I can tell here, this is just local authorities deciding for themselves their own curricula, as has been the case for all of America’s history.

    • No one in these cases is speaking of censorship or bans in the First Amendment sense, rather local bans, or local censorship, which is reasonable to speak of since public schools are governmental bodies. (Private schools, like private businesses, can do as their hearts desire.)

      But I see what you’re saying, and I often say as much every September when we celebrate Banned Books Week at the library where I work. Technically this has always been a misnomer, for the reasons you point out. There has never been a banned book, in the First Amendment sense (and let’s hope that continues.) Technically it should be called “Challenged Books Week”, as it deals with books that have been challenged, removed/prohibited from local collections, in public libraries and schools. But librarians use “banned” anyway, in a looser sense, but not because we’re misunderstanding the First Amendment.

      Nor does Andrew Sullivan. In the piece I cited, he says, “this is not about free speech as such” and that “regulating curricula and teaching methods in public schools is unavoidable”. The question isn’t whether or not these school districts and boards can legally do as they’ve been doing, but whether or not they should — which the answer to me, as to him, is no. They’re making bad decisions for bad reasons, and indeed acting censorious in this sense.

      Also keep in mind that the Supreme Court has actually ruled on the limited power of school boards in running their curricula. In Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School (1982) the plurality maintained that school boards can’t restrict book availability because its members object to their idea content. The school board’s absolute discretion over the classroom doesn’t necessarily extend to its library. I.e. students retain at least some First Amendment rights at school.

      • Yeah, I like the term “challenged” more, but I guess that’s more a matter of semantics. Maybe that’s my bad for not really following the connotative meaning of it, so much as the literal one which I’m used to using, e.g. bans on firearms, bans on speech, bans on drugs, etc, where possession of the thing in question is breaking the law.

        I was unaware of that 1982 court ruling, so thanks for linking that. That’s a good site! Are there any of these cases where schools are removing the books from the libraries? I’d probably object more to that than if they merely remove the books from their curricula. Because right now, I’m still not sure this is something I’d really care too much about.

        It sort of calls to mind that older debate behind removing Huck Finn from the curriculum. Instinctively, I always thought it was a silly idea (which I still do), but ultimately, I came to the conclusion that if a local school wants to do that, they’re free to do so. As long as kids still have access to “banned” books (which that 1982 SCOTUS case should ensure), the situation sounds fine to me. I think it’s good that school boards can at least have that debate and make those deliberations, even if I disagree with some of their conclusions. So long as books are not banned in the literal sense – and I’m not sure they will be – I am not too concerned about this. It sort of sounds like a slippery slope to me but hey, weirder things have happened.

  2. Yes, the Missouri board, for example, has ordered that all copies of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye be removed from all the district school libraries. A lot of these cases go beyond curricula.

    But even in cases of curricula I do care strongly about books being removed (though I would defend a school district’s legal right to do so), when it’s being done for reactionary political reasons as in what we’re seeing these days. It’s an anti-woke backlash that feeds the whole problem, and encourages people to think in terms of censorship in broader contexts. That’s what Sullivan is getting at in his article. (“If you have to teach Nikole Hannah-Jones, add a section on Zora Neale Hurston; for every Kendi tract, add McWhorter…No gender studies course without a course on biological sex and gender-critical viewpoints. No ‘queer theory’ class without texts from non-leftists, who are not falsifying history or asserting that homosexuality is socially constructed all the way down. This strategy doesn’t ban anything; it adds something. It demands that schools make sure they’re helping kids think for themselves.”)

    On top of that, some of the books being targeted are actually great books (like Maus and The Bluest Eye). If I were going to set my censorious guns on hard-left material, I sure wouldn’t choose books like that!

    I don’t blame people and parents for being disgusted with the woke agendas being shoved down kids’ throats, but it’s disconcerting to see how school boards like these are addressing the problem.

    Anyway, thanks for the comments, as always.

    • Okay, yeah in the Missouri case, I can agree they shouldn’t be doing that. The very function of public libraries is to make literature accessible. Besides, public libraries already have a lot of weird books, so removing something as mainstream as Toni Morrison is bizarre. The bright side is that, if challenged in court (according to the 1982 decision you linked), they have no legal grounds to do this, so the books should go back on the shelves, I would think.

      I never read Maus, but my little sister did, and if I remember correctly, she thought it was a good book. Either way, it doesn’t seem like anything radical or controversial. Certainly not more so than Elie Wiesel’s Night, and that one’s been on the reading list for ages.

      With regards to removing books from the curriculum, I can also agree it’s dumb, just like with the Huck Finn debate. Is it bad? Yeah. But is it catastrophic? I don’t really think so. Concerned parents who love those books can still buy them from outside publishers or find them in local libraries. Local decisions can change over time, so such “bans” can be lifted. Because it’s a local decision, it gives power to the parents, teachers, and children actually living in that community, to decide for themselves what their kids are and aren’t learning. I would certainly appreciate having this sort of power and agency when I eventually have kids.

      …Then again, I lean more towards homeschooling. Maybe that’s why I’m somewhat apathetic about this whole ordeal.

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