Uncategorized · January 27, 2022 1

Censoring History Is Not A Positive Sign For Our Democracy

Censoring History Is Not A Positive Sign For Our Democracy

Marty Levine

January 27, 2022

Last week the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a story about a new educational policy in Poland. “Barbara Nowak, a right-wing nationalist who serves as superintendent of the Małopolska province – which includes Krakow and Auschwitz – has compiled a list of hundreds of civil society groups which she says are seeking to “implement a strategy of gradual destruction of social norms” while pretending to be engaged in educational activities. The wide-ranging list, which was drawn from reports by far-right activists, includes the Owicim (Auschwitz) Jewish Center, the Association of Roma in Poland, a Down syndrome advocacy group and the Never Again Association – a watchdog group that fights antisemitism and Holocaust denial.”

In Poland, the effort to manage the past has been fueled by that nation’s difficulty in coming to grips with antisemitism and the difficult years under Nazi occupation. Understanding how raw that nerve was to many Poles, it may not have been surprising when legislation was passed that empowered its government to, in the words of  former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “attempt to rewrite history.” 

Similarly, in a very brief time, a movement to control the way we teach and learn our history has gone deeply into every level of our government. The United States, a nation that prides itself on being the beacon of freedom and democracy, is witnessing a continuing wave of efforts to control the telling of our national history. If in Poland the drive is to keep away from delving too deeply into antisemitism, for America the issue is RACEThe breadth of what is now happening was recently described in the preface to a new report from PEN America. We have witnessed federal and state executive actions, state legislation, and protests before all levels of government that “target discussions of race, racism, gender, and American history, banning a series of “prohibited” or “divisive” concepts for teachers and trainers operating in K-12 schools, public universities, and workplace settings. These bills appear designed to chill academic and educational discussions and impose government dictates on teaching and learning. In short: They are educational gag orders. Collectively, these bills are illiberal in their attempt to legislate that certain ideas and concepts be out of bounds, even, in many cases, in college classrooms among adults.” 

And this wave has not yet crested.

 On January 15th, on his first day in office, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin followed the lead of other conservative Republican governors and legislatures with his first executive order. Like the laws of Poland, it made the Government responsible for controlling how our difficult history of slavery and racial oppression will be taught to his state’s children.  [Note: for emphasis, I have used bold letters)“Political indoctrination has no place in our classrooms. The vast majority of learning in our schools involves imparting critical knowledge and skills in math, science, history, reading and other areas that should be non-controversial….Inherently divisive concepts, like  Critical Race  Theory and its progeny, instruct students to only view life through the lens of race and presumes that some students are consciously or unconsciously racist, sexist, or oppressive, and that other students are victims.  This denies our students the opportunity to gain important facts, core knowledge, formulate their own opinions, and to think for themselves.  Our children deserve far better from their education than to be told what to think….The  Superintendent of Public Instruction shall review all policies within the Department of Education to identify those that promote inherently divisive concepts. Such policies shall be ended…The  Superintendent of Public Instruction shall immediately review all guidelines, websites, best practices, and other materials produced by the  Department of Education to identify those that promote or endorse divisive or inherently racist concepts. Such shall  be  removed.”

And earlier this week Youngkin went even further, telling a radio audience he was going to set up a tip-line so the power of the state could come down on those who dared to teach the ‘wrong’ history. “We’re asking for folks to send us reports and observations…help us be aware of … their child being denied their rights that parents have in Virginia, and we’re going to make sure we catalogue it all. … And that gives us further, further ability to make sure we’re rooting it out.”

Just this month, in a suburban Chicago school district, a respected diversity consultant walked away from a contract that she had just been awarded because of the fierceness of the opposition she encountered from some parents to the frankness of her message about race and racism. The animosity of the opposition to her efforts was reported by the Chicago Tribune,  “During the public comments portion of the meeting, audience members called out [the consultant’s] tone as “degrading” toward the community, and several spoke out against the hiring of an equity consultant. ‘We have a woke culture ruining our schools,’ a Darien resident said. ‘Why would the district want to hire another racist consultant?”

In a Florida School District, a seminar focused on teaching about the “The Long Civil Rights Movement” to be led by Flagler University history Professor J. Michael Butler was abruptly canceled out of fear that it would offend. In an email to district teachers, Superintendent Debra Pace captured the fear that these efforts create and that is used to empower the editing of history. “’I’m sorry we are unable to offer the planned professional development…We needed an opportunity to review {the presentation] prior to the training in light of the current conversations across our state and in our community about critical race theory’…Local administrators felt the topic set off “red flags” that related to CRT.”

Fueled by the deep pockets of conservative donors, we are seeing the results of a coordinated effort to use the discomfort that an unvarnished telling of America’s past and present is causing in white America to keep conservatives in power. It is an effort to protect those in power from having to understand the harm that was done in their name; from confronting the benefits they still gain from that legacy, and from hearing the history of their victims directly and in their own voices.

It is a strategy that cynically does not care about the harm that it is doing by widening rather than narrowing our societal rifts. Those fueling it may believe that their wealth and power will keep them above the fray. But for most of us, delaying the uncomfortable but necessary work of reconciliation and repair will make the journey more painful because it cannot be put off forever. The demographic trends will not allow us to freeze time. The choice is to do the work now or take on an even more challenging task later.