Book Burners and Elephants
It was a pleasure to burn.
-Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
“That is what it truly means to think as an antiracist: to think there is nothing wrong with Black people, to think that racial groups are equal.
-Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped From the Beginning
I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.
-George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant”
What do they want?
When I imagine the world that book-banners and “school choice” proponents seem to want, and when I sense how near we are to that world, I am afraid. It’s hard to take on their perspective, and so the vision is hazy, but it seems to look something like this:
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Public schools will be somehow run directly by parents, without the mediation of elected school boards or appointed officials. Parent groups (which appear “grassroots” but are secretly enabled by well-funded political activists and political groups in the style of Moms For Liberty) will write “curriculum” (once they figure out what that means) and adopt or ban books.
Children— who in this imagined reality don’t have access to the internet or mass media or differently-thinking peers— will fix their gazes to their parents’ faces, and believe every word coming out of their parents’ mouths.
There will be no separation between the specific church of the parent’s belief system and the state, but there will be a separation between every other church and the state.
Nice, white, straight, cisgender children who didn’t cause slavery will be able to feel unambiguously good about themselves, all the time, while their kind, wise parents fix every global problem before they have to experience it.
The fictional enemies of QAnon-style fables will have been defeated, and a new homogenous, white, Protestant, English-speaking era in America will begin.
I believe it will actually look much more like this:
À la carte education programs for the very rich, which will be judged successful because the students in them are almost predestined to be successful, with or without effective schooling.
The illusion of à la carte education programs for the upper middle class. Many of these will cater to an ahistorical nationalism and a “Christianity” that has little to do with traditional Christian and biblical beliefs, because one of the main selling pitches from current voucher and “choice” proponents is that school choice programs are good because parents rate them highly, and so it seems likely that successful programs will cater to parent desires. Some of these education programs will mean well, and will struggle mightily with the same resource scarcity that faces public schools, while the ones that are better at cost-cutting will figure out early that taking on the easiest— and least expensive—to educate children means rejecting students with special education needs, social and emotional needs, and mental or physical health needs.
Even fewer choices for the poor, as community schools lose more and more resources to education savings accounts/ private school vouchers/ whatever lingo the proponents of privatization invent to describe vouchers. Many of the poorest students, who disproportionately face the expensive-to-address needs outlined above, may be rejected from the alternative school system, or at least from the most desirable schools.
A continued cycle of grievance politics as the same people who promised and delivered “school choice” continue to blame many of society’s problems on the public schools they defunded by creating “school choice”.
Election years are full of noise. Candidates and their teams (if they can afford them) must weigh communicating substantive policy platforms (if they have them) with appeals to raw, primitive emotion that they know win votes.
In this environment, candidates with the least to say often paradoxically have a built-in advantage. For example, in the below montage of campaign interviews from the YouTube account SC Politico, SC Superintendent of Education candidate Ellen Weaver can be seen relying on simple, vague, emotionally-charged answers centered around “woke indoctrination,” “parental choice,” “the status quo,” and the perceived evils of government regulation. That many of her messages are contradictory is mostly beside the point, as long as she keeps delivering the dopamine highs connected with these ideas, which are all centered around the kinds of emotional triggers that research shows are good for short-circuiting logical thinking. (We know this messaging is effective, because it is all recycled from other politicians and privatization advocates.)
One of the most impactful experiences in my research class last year— between visits from two people who are no strangers to election noise— was our discussion of a video (entitled “Mr. Rogers and the Power of Persuasion”) that started with a discussion of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s theory of the elephant and the rider. The elephant in the analogy is the non-conscious part of our brains, including passion and emotion; the rider is our comparatively weak, conscious and “logical” side.
As Hannah Arendt wrote, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, movements aimed at consolidating nondemocratic power use arguments that aim at “opinion” rather than “truth”:
Plato, in his famous fight against the ancient Sophists, discovered that their “universal art of enchanting the mind by arguments” (Phaedrus 261) had nothing to do with truth but aimed at opinions which by their very nature are changing, and which are valid only “at the time of the agreement and as long as the agreement lasts” (Theaetetus 172)… The most striking difference between ancient and modern sophists is that the ancients were satisfied with a passing victory of the argument at the expense of truth, whereas the moderns want a more lasting victory at the expense of reality.
(For his part, philosopher Karl Popper argued that even Plato was interested in creating myths that would appeal to the common person and create a false reality, in order to defeat democratic movements that threatened Plato and his peers.)
I would argue that in our own time, thanks to social media technology and the expansion of the metaverse, no one needs to temporarily or permanently create a false reality, because so few of us are living in any kind of reality. A recent study, as reported in the New York Times, found that nonviolent popular movements are at a 100-year low in effectiveness, due in large part to the extreme polarization of ideas; when algorithms track your every move and create a distorted mirror of the world which conforms to your preexisting beliefs, there is no need to debate or compromise. And when factions can swiftly coalesce around simple, often radical positions, short-lived and ineffective protest and counterprotest movements can easily form and fizzle out.
Political noise is intentional: activate the elephant, distract the rider, and you can drive human beings, in packs, towards any outcome you want, especially if you have powerful interests behind you to use technology and media to amplify that message. We all know that this is effective, because hordes of people believe demonstrably crazy things.
Amid the noise, it’s constructive to try to foresee the world that would be created if a candidate or political movement gets its way. What if the words and images used by a campaign took on life and flesh— whether or not the candidate ever intended it? In a time where simple “rhetoric” often takes on a life of its own, driving populist movements, this thought experiment might help us step back from a purely emotional response while also avoiding an overly theoretical or analytical one.
In her interview a few months ago with a man who, according to The State Newspaper, attended the January 6 insurrection and organized a march which included members of the Proud Boys, SC Superintendent candidate Ellen Weaver repeatedly referenced a “woke worldview” or “woke ideology” and called programs promoting “diversity, equity, and inclusion” and acceptance of LGBTQ+ people “crazy” and “insanity”.
When politicians use words like “woke indoctrination” and “school choice” it’s instructive to imagine what a world that “protects” students from these trumped up fears looks like. How would we protect them, assuming that we should, from thoughts or ideas? How would we save them from perceived “indoctrination” without simply indoctrinating them with an alternative ideology?
The other day, I saw a tweet from professor and education writer Jennifer Berkshire which contained a screenshot of an interview with children’s book author Bethany Mandel— who I had not previously encountered, but who should come with a content warning for transphobia— demanding that adults “keep sacred childhood innocence”. The context was New Jersey’s new academic standards requiring children to learn about climate change. The message was that learning about reality was ruining student mental health. The solution, of course, was school vouchers. (Incidentally, content warnings, which many of these same book-banners would likely have derided a few years ago as “PC” nonsense for “snowflakes” represent a great way to help prospective readers decide for themselves whether the contents of book will harm them.)
As I was sitting outside a local coffee shop today, a woman with a small child was leaving. Cars raced by on the busy street. “If we’re going to walk on the sidewalk,” the woman told her child, “I want you to stay on this side of Mommy.” Presumably, the book-banners would argue that the mother should have told her child that cars don’t exist, instead, in order to spare him from anxiety of contemplating being run over.
Protecting children from the truth looks a lot like what we’ve always done, but worse. Many history textbooks have a long-established Eurocentric and even nationalistic bent, and politicians casting themselves as “reformers” seem to want to double down on this by banning books that attempt to balance this out.
Common targets in the wake of George Floyd’s murder include Stamped From the Beginning (Ibram X. Kendi) and Stamped (Kendi and Jason Reynolds). This week, the Pickens County school board in South Carolina unanimously voted to ban Stamped from its libraries for five years. An article from Fox Carolina called the book “controversial,” but failed to quote from the book or from the complaints aired at the school board meeting. In the same week, police in Travelers Rest, SC, were— ludicrously— called to investigate books in the public library (they found nothing illegal).
The book-banner narrative about Kendi— easily debunked by reading even the first few pages of Stamped from the Beginning— is that Kendi promotes the idea that white people are somehow inferior, or that anti-racism is about making white children feel irrational shame. Representative Adam Morgan, for example, laid out some of the most popular anti-Kendi talking points in this thread on Twitter. Morgan’s point, such as it is, is that while Kendi’s historical analysis of America and the origins of racism in America is “interesting,” there is somehow no place for it in K-12 education, where students— even high school students— would be implicitly damaged by the ideas contained.
In over thirteen years of high school teaching— and two years of middle school teaching— I find the idea that children are deeply damaged by ideas pretty silly, and as I told Morgan and his colleagues in the House Education and Public Works Committee last session, I find it illuminating that children’s innocence warriors of today seem to have no problem with the harmful messaging and lack of representation that has harmed students of color, LGBTQ students, and other marginalized groups for essentially the entire history of America.
Morgan has also been known to quote Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism out of context, and to my eyes Arendt’s book, a historical analysis of the origins of antisemitism, fascism, and totalitarianism, bears more than a passing resemblance to Kendi’s. Arendt, in a chapter called “Race-Thinking Before Racism,” argues that racism preceded Nazis and was not created in Germany, but was a widespread European ideology since the eighteenth century. Kendi places the origins of racist ideas further back— in the fifteenth century— but it’s hard to see a rational reason to quote Arendt while rejecting Kendi, unless Morgan either 1. would also ban Arendt’s work in K-12 schools, 2. doesn’t feel the genocide against minorities by the Nazis has any parallel with the enslavement, torture, and oppression of Black Americans, or 3. isn’t trying to be consistent. And if if he would ban Arendt’s work from schools in order to protect children’s innocent eyes, he may be shocked to know how many of my students are on Twitter and can easily see his tweets containing parts of her text (and likely would seek them out, since many of them met him last year when he visited our classroom).
What pro-censorship parents seem to want is to create a world where they control, absolutely, what information and ideas their children consume. For anyone who spends time around kids and can observe with a clear head, this is a patently ridiculous idea. Even prior to the internet and smartphones, children were sneaking off to read forbidden books, watch forbidden movies and TV shows, and have forbidden conversations. In an era of TikTok, YouTube, Google, and Reddit, the war to protect students through censorship is definitively lost. The better bet seems to be to help children learn the tools to identify credible sources, detect misinformation and logical fallacies, and protect themselves online (all of which are required under SC law and academic standards).
And even if parents could plausibly control everything their kids read, it wouldn’t be possible or ethical for public schools— which serve an incredibly diverse population— to assist them by banning books. As educator and scholar Dr. Paul Thomas argued recently, “If the bans were about parental rights, we would be acknowledging that when one parent has books removed from libraries and classrooms, that parent is denying the rights of all other parents who want their children to have access to those books.”
What “Reformers” and “Disruptors” Really Want
After decades of educational neglect from both major parties (punctuated by bouts of failed introductions of market-style competition from both parties) it is striking that education “reform” has suddenly captured the attention of a certain brand of “conservative” politician (the kind of “conservative” who supports book bans, government subsidies, and ideological control, but not government regulation or accountability).
Some of these culture warriors probably care about kids, and are guided by some kind of philosophy of education (even if it rarely seems to come from any experience or training in the field). But what drives most of them?
The Walton family, the Koch brothers, Jeff Yass (who poured $750K into false attack ads supporting Ellen Weaver), Betsy DeVos, and other billionaire education “disruptors” seem, especially, to want to not pay taxes, and to benefit financially from deregulated, private options for education that could replace and supplant public-funded options that are generally mandated by state constitutions.
Berkshire and coauthor Jack Schneider, in A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School, describe a 2018 ad campaign in San Antonio that will sound familiar to anyone closely following this year’s education superintendent races:
San Antonio, intoned the narrator, needed more new, innovative schools that allowed teachers to cut through red tape and put kids ahead of bureaucracy. The ad was part of an ambitious campaign called Keep Learning San Antonio, aimed at expanding charter schools in the city and restructuring the school district along free-market lines. By marketing standards, it was a smashing success. When the campaign concluded, the video had been viewed more than 4.8 million times— its message further amplified through local news reports.
The ad was attributed to a Texas nonprofit called Families Empowered— a group that advocates for school choice, including in the form of taxpayer-funded school vouchers. But behind the glossy, professionally shot imagery were the deep pockets of the Walton family, heirs to the Walmart fortune, whose passion for the cause of school choice is rivaled perhaps only by the DeVos clan.
Honestly, I’m pretty sure that’s all they want: lower taxes and the chance to diversify their portfolios by adding a bunch of private schools and private “educational service providers”. If that comes at the cost of a system which serves the majority of American children and families, and which exists to promote democracy, then so be it.
And the messaging works. Ellen Weaver, like other “conservative” politicians, has used many of the most loaded phrases from the above campaign in her own messaging: red tape and bureaucracy are particularly striking since she is been a member and former chair of the Education Oversight Committee— objectively the source, by design, of much of South Carolina’s educational red tape and bureaucracy— for years. But it doesn’t need to make sense to the “rider”; it only needs to make sense to the “elephant”.
So What Can We Do?
Karl Popper, in The Open Society and Its Enemies, discusses “the paradox of tolerance,” which is the concern that if a society is completely tolerant of different viewpoints (“free speech”) it runs the risk of allowing the most unethical, most anti-democratic, and most intolerant elements to dominate the discourse, thereby running the risk that the society’s very tolerance leads to widespread intolerance. I think we can see this is the way many of the same extreme elements which have weaponized “free speech” and bemoaned “cancel culture” are now demanding that we “protect children’s innocence” and ban books (many of which, fittingly, are about principles that support tolerance, like anti-racism, or pro-LGBTQ).
The thing is, it is easier for factions that seek to disable or kill the “rider” and to enrage and embolden the worse impulses of “elephant” to control discourse. To win, I believe pro-democratic forces need to learn to truthfully engage with the emotional impulses that drive populist movements. We need to offer corrections that aren’t just technically correct (and often annoyingly academic), but make emotional sense. We need to learn to simplify our messages without diluting them, and we need to reach outside of our bubbles to alert our well-meaning neighbors to the real threat of anti-democratic extremists in both our political and social worlds.
I realize that’s a somewhat ironic message to give after a long-ish essay full of references to philosophers and researchers, so here’s my shot at a more direct message:
Support intellectual freedom. Oppose anti-democratic elements. Oppose groups which try to police children’s thoughts and harm the ability of citizens to talk to one another. Resist schemes to keep you from learning from people who aren’t like you. In a diverse society, only diversity will save us.
Or, as Octavia Butler wrote, in Parable of the Sower,
Or be divided,
By those who see you as prey.
Or be destroyed.
Berskhire and Schneider. Decades of villainization caused our mass teachers’ exodus
Bowers, Paul. “We are not a threat, we’re just people.”
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