“Give me four years to teach the children, and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted.” So said Russia’s Vladimir Lenin, explaining the importance of taking over the educational system of a country in order to change its entire society. Controlling education, which includes controlling what books students – and in most cases, eventually, people of all ages – are allowed to read, has been one of the first steps many fascist dictators and governments have taken to fuel their rise to power.
Adolf Hitler in Germany, Benito Mussolini in Italy, The Russian Communists, Chinese Maoists and the Red Guard, Pol Pot in Cambodia, among others, all made it a priority to control what books were acceptable and what should or shouldn’t be taught in schools. Currently, Vladimir Putin has been tightening his grip on Russian children’s education as part of his efforts against Ukraine. It’s common enough that many authors of dystopian books use the government takeover of education and the banning of books as a way of showing just how far a society has fallen.
It is against this background that we need to look at the current actions taken by Ron DeSantis in Florida and governors in other Red States to “reform” the education of children in their areas. As I noted in a previous post, their actions are not confined to the borders of their states alone. Textbook publishers want to avoid having to make multiple editions of their books tailored to each state’s curriculum, so they tend to publish books acceptable to the most restrictive states.
Some laws being written to restrict what can be taught are fairly vague, though, in terms of what is or is not acceptable. As such, textbook companies will tend to be overcautious in what they do or don’t include. Recently, the New York Times came across an example of a lesson about Rosa Parks in which the company had at least considered removing any reference to her race:
The New York Times compared three versions of the company’s Rosa Parks story, meant for first-graders: a current lesson used now in Florida, an initial version created for the state textbook review and a second updated version.
Some of the material was provided by the Florida Freedom to Read Project, a progressive parent group that has fought book ban efforts in the state, and confirmed by The Times.
In the current lesson on Rosa Parks, segregation is clearly explained: “The law said African Americans had to give up their seats on the bus if a white person wanted to sit down.”
But in the initial version created for the textbook review, race is mentioned indirectly.
“She was told to move to a different seat because of the color of her skin,” the lesson said.
In the updated version, race is not mentioned at all.
“She was told to move to a different seat,” the lesson said, without an explanation of segregation.
It’s unclear which of the new versions was officially submitted for review. The second version — which doesn’t mention race — was available on the publisher’s website until last week.
The version in which they did not mention race read in its entirety
“Rosa Parks showed courage. One day, she rode the bus. She was told to move to a different seat. She did not. She did what she believed was right.”
Think about that and the lesson it would teach for a moment. Not knowing that Ms. Parks was black and that she was asked to move specifically because she was black and that black people were required to give up their seats to any white person who wanted it, leaves you with a woman who was asked to move and said no. That’s it. It teaches kids that if someone asks you to do something, and you don’t believe you should have to, saying no is the courageous thing to do.
Fortunately, according to Snopes, in an article published after the NYT article, the publisher recognized that removing race entirely was an overreaction and has since changed the text again.
I’d mentioned earlier that dystopian authors often use book burning and banning to show how far a society has sunk. Rachel Robison-Greene at the Prindle Institute noted:.
In particular, readers see these themes explored in 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and The Handmaid’s Tale. In 1984, Orwell describes a “Ministry of Truth” that is responsible for changing history books so that they say all and only what the authoritarian regime wants them to say. In Fahrenheit 451, Bradberry describes an authoritarian regime that disallows reading altogether. In The Handmaid’s Tale, reading is permitted, but only by the powerful, and in this case the only powerful community members are men.
It should come as no surprise that those three books are among the ones being banned in many areas. This is no coincidence. These three books are their authors’ attempt to ring the warning bells as loudly as they can, and allowing people to read them – especially students who are still impressionable even at the higher grade levels that these books are most suited for – could give them the idea that they can try to prevent the fascism to come. And one of the most important things a nascent fascist government can do to gain and maintain power is keep their people stupid.
You hear it now from the extreme right-wing Republicans who want to abolish the Department of Education. They’ve set out to reconfigure school curriculums so that children are only taught about the good things White people have done, ignoring the accomplishments of other races, eliminating teaching about diversity, equality and intersectionality, and banning any books that might teach them otherwise. Donald Trump has even said the quiet part out loud, as is his wont: “I love the poorly educated!”
We need to be far more alarmed than we are at what we’re seeing happen in so many states. Lenin thought he only needed 4 years of teaching children what he wanted them to learn to change the entire society. The big push to ban books and change education began during 2020-2021, so they’ve had at least 2 years already. We can’t afford to give them any more.