Commentary

A brief history of what has actually been taught in American schools & why Republicans love it

High school graduates with mortarboards
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Beginning the first day Europeans stepped foot on what has come to be known as “the Americas,” decisions over who can be educated and what type of education they may receive have depended on issues of race, gender, and sexuality.

The Puritans left England to the Americas to practice a “purer” form of Protestant Christianity. They believed they were divinely chosen to form a biblical commonwealth with no separation between religion and government. They tolerated no other faiths or interpretations of divine precepts. In fact, they murdered and expelled Quakers, Catholics, and others.

Related: Why this Black trans activist owes everything to his “praying granny”

Europeans on the North and South American continents established their domination based on a program of exploitation, violence, kidnapping, and genocide against native populations. The American colonies followed European perceptions of race. A 1705 Virginia statute, the “Act Concerning Servants and Slaves,” read:

“[N]o negroes, mulattos or Indians, Jew, Moor, Mahometan [Muslims], or other infidel, or such as are declared slaves by this act, shall, notwithstanding, purchase any christian (sic) white servant….”

The Schools: An Early History

Throughout the history of this country, in their role as social institutions, schools have reproduced the cultural norms, often with the attendant range of social inequities and dominant group privileges found within the larger society.

In Colonial America, few regions, except for the larger New England towns, mandated the building of schools or the provision of childhood instruction. Schools that were constructed and teachers who were hired were done so only because local citizens decided to pool their resources.

During this time, classroom lessons were tied directly to Protestant religions and the Protestant Bible, which the early settlers (a.k.a. land thieves) brought with them from England. School lessons primarily centered on preaching, catechizing, and prayers, which called for freedom from the influences of the Devil and attacks from indigenous native populations.

The most frequently used schoolbook was The New England Primer, to teach reading as well as the Protestant catechism. Several Catholic parishes established parochial or parish schools partly due to the Protestant teachings that pervaded the public-school curriculum.

In their attempts to “civilize” and convert native peoples to Christianity, the French, Spanish, as well as English colonists established “Indian Schools,” though most native peoples refused to attend. Black people, however, generally were not accorded the right to an education, especially in the southern colonies, which passed laws enacting heavy fines and physical punishment against anyone found educating them.

These laws made the practice of providing printed materials or teaching enslaved peoples a punishable crime. If found with a book, black people could and often were beaten, whipped, or killed by white slavers.

Following the Revolutionary War, leaders such as Thomas Jefferson and others called for state-supported and mandated public education, believing that the very survival of the new republic depended on an educated populace.

Jefferson, for example, advocated for a three-year publicly supported education for all white children—no such guarantees were to be extended to children of enslaved Africans—with advanced education provided to a select few males—not females. As Jefferson wrote, the schools will be “raking a few geniuses from the rubbish.”

The first statewide school system was established in Massachusetts in the 1820s largely because of the efforts of Horace Mann, the first secretary of education of any state in the United States. While traveling throughout Massachusetts, Mann found an unequal patchwork of local schools dependent on the tax base of each community. He proposed a new structure, which he called “common schools.”

These schools were to serve all children, of all income levels. He hoped these schools would help to end, or at least reduce, the financial inequities between citizens of the state.

Mann and other political and community leaders also supported and imposed homogeneity of opinion and belief. They argued that the main purpose of public education was for the development of good character based on religion, which was itself based on the central teachings of the Protestant Bible.

During the eighteenth century, the public schools throughout the U.S. extensively used the McGuffey Readers. Though children of several faiths attended the schools, a Protestant character infused these books. So, both during colonial times and the early years of public education following the Revolutionary War, a Protestant foundation permeated schooling.

In 1790, the newly constituted United States Congress passed the Naturalization Act, which excluded all nonwhites from citizenship, including Asians, enslaved Africans, and Native peoples, the latter whom they defined in oxymoronic terms as “domestic foreigners,” even though they had inhabited this land for thousands of years.

Congress did not grant Native Americans rights of citizenship until 1924 with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act, though Asians continued to be denied naturalized citizenship status.

They employed scriptural justification to support the institution of slavery, for example:

Ephesians 6:5-6: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.”

Luke 12:47: “That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows.”

Later, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate states asserted:

“[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts” (Davis, in Clifton & Van De Mieroop, 2016, p. 16).

Central to the patriarchal Christian white supremacist conquest of territory was the concept of “Manifest Destiny”: Providence destined U.S. expansion from the Atlantic to the Pacific (“from sea to shining sea”) by the so-called “Anglo-Saxon race.” This justified in the mind of the European, the theft of Indigenous people’s territories and a war with Mexico.

To “civilize” native peoples and make them “productive” members of European-American society, between 1879 and 1905, white Christian teachers operated 25 Indian boarding schools for the U.S. government throughout the U.S. This system was organized by Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt, who founded and personally supervised the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.

As Pratt related to a Baptist audience regarding his theory of education: “[We must immerse] Indians in our civilization, and when we get them under, [hold] them there until they are thoroughly soaked.” And, “We must kill the Indian in him to save the man.”

Pratt and the white teachers stripped native youth of their cultures: they cut short males’ hair, they forced them to wear Western-style clothing and take a Western name, they prohibited students from conversing in their native languages and English was compulsory, they confiscated and destroyed all their cultural and spiritual symbols, and they imposed and mandated the learning and adoption of Protestant Christianity.

Following the Civil War and the passage of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, theoretically, all citizens born in the U.S. or naturalized were granted the right to equal protection of the laws and “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens…”

The Southern states, though, passed laws—codified in the Supreme Court ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson—justifying segregated facilities, including education in which black students received woefully underfunded schools which lacked even basic resources.

Censorship of LGBTQ+ Materials

Every year, the American Library Association announces its list of the most challenged and banned books in schools, libraries, and within the larger society. Annually, among this list are books with LGBTQ themes and/or characters.

Throughout the United States, under the battle cry of “preserving traditional American family values,” conservative and theocratic forces attempt to prevent multicultural curricula from being instituted in the schools.

On the elementary school level related to LGBTQ themes, they target books like And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, a lovely true story about two male penguins in the New York City Central Park Zoo raising a baby penguin. Also, King and King, by Linda de Haan, about a king meeting his mate, another king.

Not so long ago, the patriarchal Christian white supremacist right went berserk after Daddy’s Roommate written and illustrated by Michael Willlhoit, about a young boy who spends time with his father and father’s life partner, Frank, following the parents’ divorce, and Gloria Goes to Gay Pride by Lesléa Newman, with illustrations by Russell Crocker, a portrait of young Gloria who lives with her two mommies: Mama Rose, a mechanic, and Mama Grace, a nurse.

My co-authored book with Diane Raymond, Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (1988, 1993), the first textbook on the topic, became the center of controversy in a Kansas City, Kansas school district. A high school English teacher included the book among others in a cabinet of reference books for her students to use in conducting research for their essays.

The school principal discovered our book, and summarily fired the teacher who sued the district to recover her job. The ACLU eventually won the suit, and the teacher was allowed to return to the classroom with the stipulation that she could not reenter her former school and had to teach in another district school.

“The Pen Is Mightier Than the Sword”

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, book bans, and burnings throughout the ages?

A form of cultural imperialism for LGBTQ people, as is true for many ethnic and racial groups, is that they often grow up within an oppressive society depriving them of a historical context for their lives. The larger society perpetuates the myth that they have no culture and no history, and that they do not constitute a bona fide community.

A crucial point in the psychology of scapegoating is the representation of minoritized “others,” in historian John Boswell’s words, as “animals bent on the destruction of the children of the majority,” and dominant groups have long accused LGBTQ people of acting as dangerous predators concentrated on ensnaring, torturing, and devouring primarily children of the dominant group.

When demagogues play on people’s fears and prejudices by invoking these images for their own political, social, and economic gains, in more instances than not, this results in loss of civil and human rights, harassment, violence, and at times, death of the “other.”

John Boswell has documented the various means by which this falsification has been enacted to erase LGBTQ history. These sorts of discriminatory actions not only lead to the false conclusion that LGBTQ people have made no significant contributions to their societies but also furthers the isolation and invisibility of these groups.

Boswell cites as an example of heterosexist censorship a manuscript of The Art of Love by the Roman author Ovid.

A phrase that originally read, “A boys’ love appealed to me less,” was altered by a Medieval moralist to read, “A boy’s love appealed to me not at all,” and an editor’s note appearing in the margin informed the reader, “Thus you may be sure that Ovid was not a sodomite.”

One of the first instances of a change of gender pronouns occurred when, as Boswell stated, “Michelangelo’s grandnephew employed this means to render his uncle’s sonnets more acceptable to the public.”

We know about the figure of Sappho and her famed young women’s school on the Isle of Lesbos around the year 580, where we find the earliest known writings of love poems between women and other important writings.

Unfortunately, only one complete poem and several poem fragments survived for us today after centuries of the Catholic Church’s concerted effort to extinguish the works of these extraordinary women. An order in 380 of St. Gregory of Nazianzus demanded the torching of Sappho’s poetry, and the remaining manuscripts were ordered by Papal Decree in 1073 to be destroyed.

Poet Walt Whitman’s book Leaves of Grass was published in 1860. The section titled “Calamus” was clearly homoerotic. Kalamos in Greek mythology turned into a reed in grief for his young male lover, Karpos, who drowned.

The Acorus calamus is the name given to a marsh plant. For Whitman, his “Calamus” poems represent the kind of love between Kalamos and Karpos. Very soon following the book’s publication, it was removed from library shelves at Harvard University and placed in locked cabinets with other books thought to undermine students’ morals. Whitman was fired from his job at the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Radcliffe Hall’s 1928 novel, The Well of Loneliness, involved a lesbian relationship, but soon after publication was declared “obscene” by officials in both England and the U.S., and was banned.

On the European continent in Nazi Germany, in 1933 storm troopers 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 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.”

“A people without the knowledge of their past…”

In the famous words of African American social activist Marcus Garvey: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.”

The lives, stories, and histories of marginalized people in the United States have been intentionally hidden by socially dominant individuals and groups through neglect, deletions, erasures, omissions, bans, censorship, distortions, alterations, trivializations, change of pronouns signifying gender, and by other unauthorized means.

At the September 2020 White House Conference on American History, then President Trump blasted “critical race theory” as Marxist and lambasted the 1619 Project (named after the year white slavers kidnapped Africans and dumped them as property in Virginia).

“Critical race theory, the 1619 project, and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda,” Trump exploded, “ideological poison that if not removed will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together. It will destroy our country. That is why I recently banned trainings in this prejudiced ideology from the federal government and banned it in the strongest manner possible.”

He referred here to his banning of “diversity training” for federal employees to ensure a more supportive work environment for people of all social identities.

Trump said he would create a commission to promote “patriotic and pro-American education” to counter the “twisted web of lies” being taught in schools and universities that “America is a wicked and racist nation.”

By Executive Order, Trump declared he would establish “The 1776 Commission” to inspire educators to teach students about “the miracle of American history” and to make plans to honor the 250th anniversary of our country.

Since local school districts make their own curricular decisions, and the federal government cannot legally enforce its control, Trump’s rampage against our educational systems was intended to instill fear and anger among his consistent 40 percent of supporters nationwide.

What, though, could be more patriotic and pro-American than for the people of our country to confront our racist past, the foundation on which this nation arose and whose legacy continues to oppress, divide, and divert us finally and completely from our founding principles of “liberty and justice FOR ALL”?

Over the four years he occupied the Oval Office, the Trump administration assaulted our students in its attempts to promote his patriarchal Christian white supremacist agenda and it placed the very foundations of education at risk.

Unfortunately, his impact gave further permission to right-wing legislators and parents’ groups to impose their restrictive, revisionist conceptions, and total erasures of the true history of the United States, especially as related to race and racism, gender, and sexuality.

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