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Tennessee: Book Bans Are the Least of Our Problems

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Margaret Renkl, a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, wrote recently about the cultural controversies that are roiling the state of Tennessee. Everyone by now knows about the removal of MAUS from the eighth-grade curriculum in McMinn County. But book-banning and censorship are not limited to Tennessee, or even to the South, nor are they new. What is far more dangerous in Tennessee, she writes, is the “existential threat” to the future of public schools posed by Republican Governor Bill Lee and a like-minded legislature.

She wrote:

NASHVILLE — Tennessee school boards, you may have heard, have been busy lately striking long-beloved, award-winning classic literature from their social studies and language arts curriculums. The Williamson County School Board recently took a hard look at more than 30 texts, restricting the use of seven and striking one altogether: “Walk Two Moons,” a Newbery Medal-winning, middle-grade book by Sharon Creech that follows the story of a 13-year-old girl whose mother is missing. According to the group Moms for Liberty, who lodged the formal “reconsideration request” that caused the school board to take up the issue, “Walk Two Moons” is inappropriate for fourth-grade readers because it features “stick figures hanging, cursing and miscarriage, hysterectomy/stillborn and screaming during labor.”

Well, may God save all American children from the knowledge that women in labor are apt to scream.

The media didn’t pay much attention to Williamson County because the outrage over MAUS made international news. She notes that the American Library Association’s list of books that are challenged includes some that offend parents who are not southerners.

She continues:

Still, it is possible to trust that the parents in McMinn County are acting in what they believe is the best interest of their children, and also to recognize that these parents are being manipulated by toxic and dangerous political forces operating at the state and national levels. Here in Tennessee, book bans are just a small but highly visible part of a much larger effort to privatize public schools and turn them into conservative propaganda centers. This crusade is playing out in ways that transcend local school board decisions, and in fact are designed to wrest control away from them altogether.

I don’t mean simply the law, passed last year, that limits how racism is taught in public schools across the state. I’m talking about an array of bills being debated in the Tennessee General Assembly right now. One would purge books considered “obscene or harmful to minors” from school libraries across the state. Another would ban teaching materials that “promote, normalize, support or address lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) issues or lifestyles.” Yet another would prevent school districts from receiving state funding for undocumented students.

Most of all I’m talking about Gov. Bill Lee’s announcement, in his State of the State address last week, that he has approached Hillsdale College, a Christian institution in Michigan, to open 50 charter schools in Tennessee — Mr. Lee reportedly requested 100— that would follow a curriculum designed to make kids “informed patriots.” Not informed citizens; informed patriots, as conservative Christians define that polarizing term.

“What strikes me as the unusual takeaway is that the governor is intentionally wheeling the state into this very ideologically loaded and electorally loaded civics education,” said Adam Laats, the author of “Fundamentalist U: Keeping the American Faith in Higher Education,” in an interview with The Tennessean.

That’s not surprising at all if you know anything about the Tennessee Republican Party, which is in lock step with right-wing oligarchs funding their campaigns. The fact that so many of these challenged books have been in the literary canon for decades is a dead giveaway that the new bans are a response to contemporary political forces whose true motivation has nothing to do with books. What they really want is to destroy public education. As Christopher Leonard, the author of “Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America,” notes in an interview with Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider for the “Have You Heard” podcast: “The ultimate goal is to dismantle the public education system entirely and replace it with a privately run education system.” (Read a transcript of the full interview here.)

The real tragedy in Tennessee, and across the red states, is this existential threat to public education, which is the very foundation of a functioning democracy. And that’s where our outrage should lie — not at school boards whose decisions are formed by parental concerns that simply differ from our own. [emphasis added]

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