Terry H. Schwadron

May 13, 2022

The culture wars are on fire – the goal to eliminate teachings that expose to children to issues of race, identity, sexual orientation, and a view history of our country that can make a white, male-dominant, Christian nation think again.

Each day, it seems, we have a new instructional log being thrown on the blaze by Republican state officials.

This week it was legislation targeting library searches for school assignments.

Proposed legislation in several states identifies online library databases and library management technology to remove and block student access to material that is obscene, pornographic, sexually exploitative of children or “harmful to minors.”  The bills are similar and already have been enacted in Utah and Tennessee and about to become law in Oklahoma. A bill in Nebraska requires that parents be able to view all content their children can view online, reports The Washington Post.

Apart from the obvious problem of identifying exactly what books we’re talking about, this is an attack on the basics of doing any kind of research – hardly the stuff for kindergartners and first graders. Among other things, these databases offer access to otherwise subscription news or magazine articles.

Let’s skip that parents always can get engaged in their students’ homework or can work out rules for students to talk about what they are reading with parents. The idea that  Americans think we need a law to patrol student research for books to possibly read speaks volumes by itself.

The fact is that it is hard enough to get students to read or do research altogether.

But can we consider that these culture campaigns are going much further and broader than concern about students’ mental health or hunger, about valuing teaching, or about the ever-present dangers of drugs and guns.

Imagine if the same effort were turned towards support of tutoring, encouraging science education or supporting the arts in school.

The Attack on Schools

We’re hearing loads of reports that conservatives are running for their local school boards, motivated by what they see as offensive policies about requiring covid masks when the disease numbers jump or combatting any evidence of “critical race theory” notions that are not taught in the schools.

As one who has tutored students in Harlem and the Bronx, I can report first-hand that the problems facing our new readers are not about race and identity. They are about recognizing phonics and forming words and sentences in coherent thoughts, they are about building confidence in beginning readers. Just a note to rampaging MAGA protesters – the school tutoring programs welcome parental involvement.

American schools issued at least 1,310 book bans in the last five months of 2021, including “Who is Barack Obama?” and “Muffin Wars,” according to the Pen America index of school book bans. It has increased since then.

During that same period from August to December, roughly 28,170 children were inside a school when bullets were fired, according to The Washington Post database on school shootings. The New England Journal of Medicine declared last week that gun violence is the top killer of kids in our nation. The homicides of children by firearm rose more than 30 percent between 2019 and 2020, according to the journal.

In a country where we have legal same-sex marriage and protection of sexual orientation (for now, at least), one must wonder what the relative dangers of reading a book that has a gay character is as compared with drug deaths or gun violence that is as real as illiteracy.

In an article in The Atlantic, author Tim Alberta outlines the force of those within evangelical circles who have become fixated on marrying the goals of church life with literal political goals for the country. 

The Companies and the Law

So far, library database companies including ProQuest, Gale, EBSCO Information Services and Follett School Solutions have said they are tracking the spate of legislation but have no plans to make major changes to their services. In March, Follett announced, then rescinded a possible feature to allow parents to track and limit what their children check out from the library. The company met backlash on social media.

The conservative politicians pushing the legislation argue that more controls are needed to repel an epidemic of sexual content, including pornographic material, that students are viewing through online school databases.

Educators and librarians say the new note that there are federal child protection and Internet privacy laws that already require database companies to ensure that their materials are age appropriate. Database company leaders said in statements and interviews that they are careful to provide only content that is meant for K-12 students.

So, we have something else going on here, all part of an angry feelings chain that includes a full variety of anti-institutional attitudes. The “populist” outlook driving MAGA is one that decries scientists, educators and independent thinkers as elitists trying to run and ruin their lives. The real purpose of these anti-book search laws seems bent on justifying efforts to remove books that MAGA dislikes for positive mentions of gay or transgender lifestyles or for negative mentions of institutional racism.

What is odd is that these book limits started about kindergartners and now extend to university teaching.

Plus, one must wonder what these students do with Google, or what happens when they spend time with video games, or why there are so many reports about the ill effects of bullying and shaming through social media.

The positive here is to welcome interest from MAGA politicians to the world of education, especially for younger children. There is plenty of room for them to help, guide or even set limits for their own children.

But let’s not substitute one view of the world as a mandated guide for us all.

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