The flood of bills in state legislatures seeking to prohibit “divisive concepts” in the public schools must be deeply gratifying to those who long for the good old days of McCarthy and HUAC. If concepts such as inequality of opportunity and the existence of gay people are so scandalous, just imagine what history books will be like when they’re satisfactorily sanitized of any truthful or uncomfortable content. Or don’t bother imagining: my friend Bryan has dug out a textbook used in Tennessee schools in the 1960s-70s, where in the chapter about Reconstruction we read the following:
“The Ku Klux Klan started in May 1866… The declared aim of the order was ‘to protect the innocent, the weak, and the defenceless’… Other aims were to support the United States Constitution, and to aid in the execution of all constitutional laws…. The Klan had a restraining influence on the excesses of the Loyal Leagues, and of extremists in the Freedmen’s Bureau.”Mary U. Rothrock, This Is Tennessee: A School History (Knoxville: Rothrock, 1963), pp. 310-311.
I shudder to think of the people who would find such an account inoffensive. But that’s what we’re headed toward if we don’t stop these educational gag orders.
Underneath the manufactured crisis of “parental authority” vis-à-vis the public schools is a combat for memory. Public memory is implicitly always contested and contestable. It contains memories that are suppressed, oversold, neglected, ignored, criminalized, the concern of a coterie, falsified, or merely potential– all in a constant competitive roil and boil. And it matters what you remember. Ask someone from Eastern Europe. Or one of the imprisoned scholars of China. Or someone from Latin America, or Africa. If these interlocutors are too exotic, or too busy to talk to you, then get in touch with a Tennessean of any color, gender, or age.