Commentary

Parents & politicians attacking institutions of learning is nothing new in human history

books burning
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Under the guise of “freedom” to determine “their children’s” education, though not a new phenomenon, we are seeing some parents, legislators, and school administrators attempting to place severe limits on the teaching of our nation’s past and the legacies of this history upon the lives of people and the functioning of institutions today.

Republican legislators throughout the U.S. have enacted new laws and policies intended to define the narrow parameters of what and how students will discuss our country’s past and our present.

Related: GOP candidate wants libraries to out kids who check out LGBTQ books

Many of these efforts have attempted to ban Critical Race Theory (CRT), even though CRT is not taught in public school and is generally discussed in selective college and university graduate level courses.

Possibly because the notion of Critical Race Theory is so vague to most conservative voters, Republican candidate for Virginia’s next Governor, Glenn Youngkin, calling himself the “parents’ rights candidate,” has attempted to instill further fear on the part of the electorate.

He has raised his racist bullhorn by declaring not only his intent to ban Critical Race Theory the day he is elected, but also to outlaw the reading of the critically acclaimed and award-winning novel by author Toni Morrison, Beloved, which was turned into a major feature film.

Beloved, a truthful and painful story of the lives and loves of two enslaved black people in the U.S. South, has become an integral part of the canon of not only African American literature but of American literature generally.

We must never forget, however, the prophetic words of German poet, Heinrich Heine: “Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.”

Censorship as Cultural and Physical Genocide

As wisely and eloquently stated by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his 1839 play, Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” this adage holds that the written word acts as a powerful tool in the transmission of ideas. Why else would oppressive regimes and other avid enforcers of the status quo engage in censorship and book bannings and burnings throughout the ages?

For example, Pope Gregory IX in 1239, in his quest to maintain the Catholic Church’s economic and ideological stranglehold, ordered all copies of the Jewish holy book, the Talmud, confiscated, and one of his successors, Pope John XXI, commanded that the Talmud be burned on the eve of the Jewish Passover in 1322.

Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, in his 1526 treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, argued that “First, their synagogues should be set on fire.” Jewish prayer books should be destroyed, and rabbis forbidden to preach. The homes of Jews should likewise be “smashed and destroyed” and their residents “put under one roof or in a stable like gypsies, to teach them they are not master in our land….These “poisonous envenomed worms should be drafted into forced labor. The young and strong Jews and Jewesses should be given the flail, the ax, the hoe, the spade, the distaff, and the spindle and let them earn their bread by the sweat of their noses.”

As Luther’s dire pronouncements make perfectly clear, what begins as banning then torching of books and other property eventually results in the denial of civil liberties, torture, and eventually murder of people scapegoated by dominant social groups and by their government leaders.

This was certainly the case in Nazi Germany. Nazi storm troopers, in 1933, invaded, ransacked, and padlocked The Institute for Sexual Sciences in Berlin, founded by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, a gay Jewish sexuality researcher.

The Institute conducted early sexuality and gender research, the precursor of the Indiana-based Kinsey Institute in the United States. Stormtroopers carried away and torched thousands of volumes of books and research documents calling the Institute “an international center of the white slave trade” and “an unparalleled breeding ground of dirt and filth.”

Soon thereafter, Nazis and conservative university students throughout Germany invaded Jewish organizations, and public and school libraries and confiscated books they deemed “un-German.” The German Student Association, (Deutsche Studentenschaft) declared a national “Action against the Un-German Spirit.”

On May 10, 1933, the students along with Nazi leaders set ablaze over 25,000 volumes in Berlin’s Opernplatz. Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, “fired” up the crowd of over 40,000 sympathizers by declaring “No to decadence and moral corruption. Yes to decency and morality in family and state.”

Joel Spring, in his book Deculturalization and the Struggle for Equality: A Brief History of the Education of Dominated Cultures in the United States, addresses “cultural genocide,” which he defines as “the attempt to destroy other cultures” through forced acquiescence and assimilation to majority rule and cultural and religious standards. This cultural genocide works through the process of “deculturalization,” which Spring describes as “the educational process of destroying a people’s culture and replacing it with a new culture.”

A historical example of “cultural genocide” and “deculturalization” can be seen in the case of European American domination over Native American Indigenous nations whom European Americans viewed as “uncivilized,” “godless heathens,” “barbarians,” and “devil worshipers.”

European Americans attempted to deculturalize indigenous peoples through many means: confiscation of land, forced relocation, undermining of their languages, cultures, and identities, forced conversion to Christianity, and the establishment of Christian day schools and off-reservation boarding schools where they took youth far away from their people.

The U.S. government under President Hayes approved and developed off-reservation Indian boarding schools, the first in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1879 run primarily by white Christian teachers, administered by Richard Pratt, a former cavalry commander in the Indian Territories.

At the schools, officials stripped Indigenous children from their cultures: cut short the young men’s hair, forced all to wear Western-style clothing, prohibited them from conversing in their native languages and made English compulsory, destroyed all their cultural and spiritual symbols, and imposed Christianity on them.

As Pratt related to a Baptist audience: “[We must immerse] Indians in our civilization, and when we get them under, [hold] them there until they are thoroughly soaked.”

Arizona as Case Study

By comparison, how are these attitudes and actions are any different from the draconian practices enacted by Arizona state officials in 2010 in stripping away primarily the Mexican American Studies programs from Tucson public schools? Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, John Huppenthal, suspended the highly successful and student empowering program.

Then Arizona School Superintendent, Tom Horne, in 2010 when the state legislature passed the measure, House Bill 2281, asserted that the law is necessary because Tucson, Arizona’s Mexican American, African American, and Native American studies courses teach students that they are oppressed, encourage resentment toward white people, and promote “ethnic chauvinism” and “ethnic solidarity” instead of treating people as individuals.

Huppenthal released a list of books he had banned from classrooms throughout the state, including The Tempest by Shakespeare, Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years (1998) by Bigelow and Peterson, The Latino Condition: A Critical Reader (1998) by Delgado and Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (2001) by Delgado and Stefancic, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2000) by  Freire, United States Government: Democracy in Action (2007) by Remy, Dictionary of Latino Civil Rights History (2006) by Rosales, and Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology (1990) by Zinn.

Anyone who believes in academic freedom and cultural liberty must find practices of censorship offensive. Students previously enrolled in the Mexican American Studies program achieved a 94% high school graduation rate, up significantly from around 50% of Latino/a students not enrolled. The program had given students a sense of cultural pride, a passion and joy in the learning process, and a feeling of hope for their futures.

Unfortunately, however, Arizona politicians placed social and cultural conformity as the major considerations. This reflects educational researcher’s, Kochman, in Black and White Cultural Styles in Pluralistic Perspective (1994) contention that dominant society mandates linguistic and cultural assimilation as a requirement for social support:

“The nonreciprocal nature of the process of cultural assimilations of minorities does not permit the mainstream American culture to learn about minority cultural traditions nor benefit from their official social incorporation. It also suggests an unwarranted social arrogance: that mainstream American society has already reached a state of perfection and cannot benefit from being exposed to and learning from other cultural traditions”

As Santayana reminds us: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” We now, though, have an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of the past by speaking out against the racism and cultural genocide that surrounds us.

Standing together and standing firm, we can reverse the tide of ruthless socialization engulfing our educational system.

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