Why education has become a political battleground in America | News | DW

Robin Steenman rolls a black box full of colorful books to his kitchen table and pulls out a handful. The pages are scratched and marked with sticky tabs. The stack includes headings like Seahorse: the shyest fish in the sea, Separation is never equal: Sylvia Mendez and her family’s fight for desegregation and The history of Ruby Bridges.

For Steenman, these pages are proof that schooling has gone wrong.

She is president of Moms for Liberty, a conservative group that defends the right of parents to have a say in their children’s education, in Williamson County, Tennessee. His group objects to the way certain books are taught in the district’s public schools.

“Schools shouldn’t impose an ideology on my kids,” Steenman said. “Schools should effectively teach them to read and write, do math and understand science so they can get ahead and succeed in life. But this program is more about its own message and its own curriculum than it equips kids to do it.”

Those on the other side of the argument say it’s important to discuss racism in the American system

Williamson County’s Moms for Freedom filed a formal complaint with the Tennessee Department of Education late last year, saying the books and teaching materials “reveal both anti-American teaching , anti-white and anti-Mexican explicit and implicit”, and that they presented “a strongly biased program, which makes children hate their country, each other and / or themselves”.

Their complaint was dismissed. But the case underscores a growing trend in the United States where a conservative-led movement is cracking down on education and, in particular, what schools teach children. They target books and educational materials across the country and challenge the way racism, gender and sexuality are discussed.

A new battleground in schools

This again put classrooms and libraries at the forefront of America’s culture wars.

According to the American Library Association, there were “729 challenges to materials and services from libraries, schools, and universities in 2021, resulting in more than 1,597 challenges or removals of individual books.” This is the highest number of attempted book bans since the organization began counting such challenges in 2000. Most of these books were written by or about black or LGBTQ+ people, the association said. .

And all this despite the fact that a poll by the American Library Association indicates that the majority of Americans, regardless of political party, oppose efforts to remove books from public and school libraries.

“[Banning books] is a common feature of American history and has a lot to do with the larger context of the culture wars in some respects, which have always been part of American history,” said Andrew Hartman, professor of history at the Illinois State University. and author of A War for America’s Soul: A History of the Culture Wars.

“This debate between largely religious conservatives and largely secular liberals dates back to the 1920s in many ways, but has really intensified since the 1960s and the liberation movements – civil rights, feminism, gay rights.”

In 1933, the Nazis burned books they considered subversive or opposed to Nazism.

In 1933 the Nazis burned books they considered subversive or opposed to Nazism

This battle against censorship is not new and is not limited to the United States. From the German National Socialists banning and burning books they deemed degenerate, to Chinese Cultural Revolution radicals destroying books that did not conform to their political ideology, reading and teaching materials have been a common target across the history and around the world.

However, the current wave of book bans in the United States appears to be more politicized than before, as it pits the two main American political parties – Republicans and Democrats – against each other in an already deeply polarized political landscape.

Opportunistic ideologues

“They have become largely Republican supporting conservative, largely white, religious or evangelical parents,” Hartman explained. “And often, Republican politicians are frankly opportunistic in building support for themselves, for their candidacies … because those are issues that drive their base.”

The current backlash against books and programs has turned into a national battle. There have been rallies and protests from Virginia to California, with conservative groups attacking school boards and education officials. Last year, a Tennessee county teacher was fired for referring to white privilege in his classes because the state’s General Assembly banned what is known as critical theory of race in schools.

ideas that divide

Critical Race Theory, or CRT, refers to an academic concept that focuses on how racism is systemic, embedded in local policies and laws. Conservatives argue that CRT is divisive and fosters a negative self-image in white children. Many educators claim that there is no CRT curriculum in schools and that they teach the same curricula they have been following for years without anyone objecting. Meanwhile, black parents point out that racism is often embedded in the systems their children have to deal with.

Yet the controversy goes well beyond critical race theory. Conservative groups object to the way schools also teach about gender and sexuality. In Florida, the state’s governor, a member of the more conservative and right-wing Republican Party, has asked education officials to remove and cleanse math textbooks of what was described as “woke content.” Among other things officials objected to were references to racial bias in the books.

A Tennessee school board even voted to remove Mausthe Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust for what was considered “coarse and objectionable language”.

Maus graphic novel title page.

The award-winning graphic novel, Maus, was banned for containing swear words and the depiction of a nude character

“History should be taught absolutely, warts and all, but just teach history without an agenda or ideology or trying to put a child in one box or another, because history has its own lessons,” said Steenman from Moms for Liberty. “If you read a book about the history of the United States, especially about slavery and the Civil War, you know, I was taught that when I was a kid and I came to the conclusion that it’s was bad. Never repeat that. But I was never blamed for it. [the Civil War or slavery] like a child.”

No negative self-image

The co-founders of One WillCo, an organization that advocates for students of color in the same Tennessee county as Moms for Liberty, have a counter argument to that, though. They argue that complaints from conservative parents are unwarranted because students are thriving with the current curriculum and also learning difficult lessons about race and gender.

“All you have to do is explain to the kids and they get it. We don’t give our kids enough credit to handle the conversations we have,” said Revida Rahman, one of One WillCo’s co-founders. , which is black. and has children in the public school system. “And unfortunately for me, I regularly have to have tough conversations with my kids to let them know how they’re perceived, how they can’t do certain things, how you can’t take your candy to the grocery store because you can be charged with theft.”

A poster of a Harry Potter movie.

The Harry Potter books have been challenged by religious critics who say they celebrate witchcraft

Another WillCo co-founder, Jennifer Cortez, argues that concepts like CRT are Republican talking points that don’t reflect what’s actually taught in schools. Her daughter, who is white and also in the public school system, hasn’t developed a negative self-image and Cortez says it’s important to see the story through an inclusive lens.

“I understand the concern, but respectfully, it’s a white concern,” Cortez said. “I have the luxury of not having to think about my skin color here, where I live and where I grew up, because that has always been, at least, an advantage or a non-issue. But for many children and many families, it’s not,” she noted. “I can understand why some might think it’s divisive because it’s uncomfortable. But the truth is, it’s better if we can talk about it and learn to talk about it.”

Edited by Catherine Schaer

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