We could use some discomfort here
Notes on the Florida censorship bill, and a love letter to difficult teachers
My favorite teachers at my South Carolina public high school were the ones who caused me the most discomfort. I remember my 10th grade English teacher Ms. Abrahamson, the winsome hippie who would pick out a specific book to assign each student near the end of the school year. She knew I was a Southern Baptist and a staunch young Republican, so she assigned me Kurt Vonnegut’s incendiary humanist anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five.
I was annoyed at first, but the more I read, the more I was charmed. I ended up borrowing every Vonnegut book on the shelves at the Dorchester County public library that summer. I didn’t abandon my faith, and I didn’t change my politics (yet), but I remember thinking Ms. Abrahamson had really pressed my buttons. I loved her for it.
There were other teachers who made me uncomfortable. I remember Ms. Jackson, my biology teacher who humored my aggressive lines of questioning about macroevolution while holding fast to the body of scientific evidence. There was Mr. Carter, the English teacher who chain-smoked Pall Malls while he graded our papers, loved Russian literature, and introduced us all to the existentialist philosophy of Albert Camus. Mr. Shumpert, the U.S. history teacher, assigned us readings from the state-approved textbook (yawn) while also giving us extra credit if we read the more interesting passages from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. His class was where I learned about Reconstruction, the Civil Rights movement, and the Cold War without the filters of jingoism or patriotism.
The fact that all these patient, brilliant, emotionally intelligent adults came into my life at an underfunded public school in the buckle of the Bible Belt was borderline miraculous. The teaching profession wasn’t in as dire straits then as it is now (I graduated high school in ‘07, the year before the bottom dropped out on education funding), but I am sure it was still hard, frustrating, poorly compensated work. The teachers came to school anyway, creating an environment where we felt safe to work out our beliefs about the world, but never fully comfortable clinging to them.
I was thinking of my favorite teachers as I read the news out of Florida yesterday. The Associated Press reports:
A bill pushed by Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that would prohibit public schools and private businesses from making white people feel “discomfort” when they teach students or train employees about discrimination in the nation’s past received its first approval Tuesday.
The bill is specifically designed to allow white people to sue their children’s schools if they are made to feel uncomfortable about the subject of race. Reading it, I thought of what a disaster this would be in the hands of litigious racists. I’ve met a few of these people before.
Republicans who pushed the “critical race theory” lie in 2021 are going full steam ahead in 2022 with overt censorship laws, book bans, and attacks on the teaching profession like DeSantis’ anti-discomfort bill. Florida is just one egregious case.
Last year in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law banning teaching about “critical race theory” and “controversial” topics. This year in Alabama, the legislature is considering bills that would target teaching about racism and sexism. Last year here in South Carolina, Republican legislators slipped a vague ban on teaching about racism into a budget proviso. This year they’re trying to make the prohibition permanent with bills like H. 4343 (the “Academic Integrity Act”) and H. 4392 (the “Keep Partisanship Out of Civics Act”).
Comfortable history is state propaganda. Putting a bounty on teachers’ heads for making white kids uncomfortable is censorship. We should speak plainly as we raise hell in our respective Statehouses this year.
If we can resist and defeat these obvious encroachments on academic freedom, there will still be work to do. The Zinn Education Project recently published a state-by-state report on K-12 standards for teaching Reconstruction, and the picture it painted was abysmal across the board.
From the introduction:
Historical connections to Reconstruction surround us today: the growing Movement for Black Lives, rising white supremacist violence, virulent voter suppression, multiracial movements to address policing and labor, political efforts to ban controversial topics from classrooms, and racial disparities in COVID-19 mortality rates. The attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, symbolized by a Confederate flag flying in the Capitol, failed to overturn the 2020 election results; in the 1870s, white supremacist terrorists throughout the South successfully defeated democracy and equality for more than a generation.
As these recent events have reinforced Reconstruction’s relevance, they have also heightened the need to interrogate why it remains so poorly understood.
South Carolina’s history standards scored a 3.5 out of 10 on the researchers’ rubric for accuracy and rigor, which actually placed us in the top 15 states overall. Eighteen states got a 0. I’d encourage you to check out your state’s report with a grain of salt (grade-level standards give you a partial picture of what’s actually taught in the classroom). I think the report serves as a good starting point. If we’re going to teach children the plain truth about this country, we need to do a better job explaining the racial, social, and economic upheaval that followed the Civil War.
For all the strengths of my own K-12 education, I was not taught to think critically about race or class. Our schools could still do better on those fronts.
But my teachers at least gave me the critical tools to think about deeply personal, highly uncomfortable questions later in life. For example: Why did my home county get split into two school districts, and why was mine the wealthier majority-white one while the other was poorer and majority-Black? When I went to college at the University of South Carolina, why were standardized test scores so important for admissions, financial aid, and entry into the quasi-elite Honors College?
In other words, in what ways was I the beneficiary of a racial caste system and a rigid class hierarchy? Going further, what role should I play in dismantling those structures?
Right now I’m reading Eric Foner’s A Short History of Reconstruction, which I figured I would be more likely to finish than the full-length Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution. It’s a good read.
Here are a few other things I’ve appreciated on the subject:
This 2020 video chat hosted by Charleston DSA with Dr. Robert Greene II of Claflin University on the history and legacy of Reconstruction
This short article from Black Past on the Port Royal Experiment
“Riot on the Combahee: Organized Black Resistance and the End of Reconstruction” by Dr. Robert Bland, UT-Knoxville
“Black Laborers, the Republican Party, and the Crisis of Reconstruction in Lowcountry South Carolina” by Brian Kelly, International Review of Social History Vol. 51, No. 3 (December 2006), pp. 375-414 (Holler if you need help getting a copy.)
In South Carolina, the teacher-led advocacy group SC for Ed is mounting a fight against this year’s round of teacher censorship bills in the Statehouse. If you are a teacher and would like to testify against the bills, SC for Ed has a survey for you to fill out here.
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