Among other states, legislators in Alabama and Texas are working to pass laws that would prohibit academics from teaching about the social and political histories of the nation. The very thought should send shudders down the spines of anyone familiar with the attempts of German Fascists to purify their society of “decadent” art and “alien” ideas. Most of the homegrown pinheads proposing this censorship may have never learned that the United States and the West did the world a favor by sheltering a large number of German academics fleeing to seek safety and academic freedom. Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik and Herbert Marcuse are only a few intellectuals that found their way to the United States. They fled the Nazi’s thought police who found their teaching and religious beliefs alien to the culture. All focused their scholarship on culture and society, making advances in American explorations of philosophy, psychology, sociology and cultural analysis. Indeed, Adorno and Frenkel-Brunswik’s explorations of “The Authoritarian Personality” remain all to relevant in this era of populist-fascist dictatorships. What they described as theory we now understand as fact.
The “problem” that right-wing legislators think they are addressing includes ostensibly “dangerous” leftist ideas, and the teaching of what most misunderstand as “critical race theory:” a phrase that triggers fantasies that chain out past what are useful historical and theoretical probes. The goal is to prohibit teachers in history and the social sciences from confronting the fact of American racism first institutionalized with slavery and then embedded in nearly every corner of our national life. Tina Descovich, of “Moms for Liberty” sets out very narrow guardrails: “To say there were slaves is one thing, but to talk in detail about how slaves were treated, with photos, is another.”
No one alert to the challenges to any modern nation can ignore the enormous effect that racial and religious bigotry has had on its victims. The best societies have made amends. But we are still easily upside down if the classroom is subjected to gag rules imposed by non-expert and misinformed politicians. To legislate away American attempts at the useful reckonings of the past, like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, or ongoing attempts to weed out officials who are members of hate groups, is truly a fool’s errand. These attempts suggest some of the excesses of fascist blindness described by Adorno and others.
Give legislators the power to shape the topics of education, and it can be no surprise that many in the teaching professions are nervous. To be sure, school teachers have always been subject to oversight of their lesson plans, which are tied to formal curricular objectives. That was maybe why it was never part of my public school curriculum in Colorado to learn about the Sand Creek Massacre of native Americans in 1864, or the existence of a huge World War II detention camp for Chinese Americans (Camp Amache), both in the southeastern corner of the state. Even today, apparently, a high schooler’s knowledge of these places of national shame might be too much for Tina. And she would surely be chagrined to know that it was high schoolers in that area who encouraged the federal government to put the site within the National Park system.
At most true universities there are generally fewer curricular guidelines that can muzzle the accumulated knowledge of a respected scholar. If it were possible to do so, such limits would empty out academia of its best and brightest focused on cultural and media theory, American history, modern criticism, American literature, philosophy, sociology, ethnic and religious studies. It’s one thing for a church or private organization to impose a-priori “doctrines,” statements of faith, or sets of “first principles.” It’s quite another for non-expert legislatures or school boards to set rules that would restrict the free discovery of ideas that is the very reason for a university. We could reach a point where professional bodies representing various disciplines may need to issue warnings to scholars to reject job offers in states that have decided to turn their backs on hard truths about the American experiment.