TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 28, 2023
We can't have such discussions now: Long ago and far away, we had a delusional moment.
In fact, it happened over the weekend. We saw this headline in The Atlantic and we dreamed of a better day:
How Should We Teach the Story of Our Country?
At least in theory, that headline was asking an excellent question. It sat atop a brief essay by Kate Cray, an associate editor for the Culture and Family sections at The Atlantic.
Cray is three years out of college (Yale, class of 2019). Her headline was asking an excellent question—though we'll have to admit that we weren't blown away by the way her short essay began:
CRAY (2/24/23): The past few years have seen an intensifying of the ways politics can intervene in education, including the censorship of books. Lawmakers in Texas have made repeated pushes to restrict the books that kids can access in schools. Leaders in other states across the country have done the same, including in Tennessee, where one local school board infamously banned Maus, a graphic novel that brutally—but honestly—depicts the Holocaust. Under Governor Ron DeSantis, Florida has passed sweeping laws that limit what schools can teach about topics such as gender, sexuality, and race. In January, the state even opposed a whole course, AP African American Studies. (The class’s curriculum has since been revised; Florida has not yet said whether it will actually impose the ban.)
The central issue in many of the recent restrictions is how to teach our country’s history. Although memorizing dates and names can lead students to believe that the subject comprises a series of simple facts about clear-cut events, the truth about the past is much more tangled. Textbooks have long been skewed or have contained errors...
In fact, Cray's short essay was the magazine's weekly submission concerning "The Best in Books." Cray went on to recommend a set of readings which tended to reinforce the view presented in the passage we've posted—a set of readings which tend to comport to the general view of this current topic which obtains within our blue tribe.
Briefly, can we talk? It seemed to us that Cray might have had her thumb on the scale a tiny tad at several points in the passage we have posted.
For example, is it true that "one local school board infamously banned Maus, a graphic novel that brutally—but honestly—depicts the Holocaust?" Is that a reasonable and fair account of what that one (1) local school board did?
Let's start by setting the loaded term "infamously" to the side. Cray's presentation may otherwise be defended as technically accurate, but technical accuracy is a very low bar for a discussion of this importance.
Has Cray offered a reasonably "unbiased" depiction the event in question? Or could that be the type of "skewed" presentation which Cray correctly wants to remove from our history textbooks?
For starters, that one local school board didn't exactly "ban" Maus. Instead, it voted to replace Maus with another book as a required text in its two-month-long, eighth-grade unit ("module") on the Holocaust.
Such decisions are made all the time. A small number of books become required texts. The ten million other books haven't all been "censored" or "banned."
(To read the minutes of the school board meeting, you can just click here.)
In Cray's view, Maus depicts the Holocaust in a "brutal" manner. If so, should it necessarily be shocking to learn that one (1) school board in one (1) location decided that this "brutal" depiction might be inappropriate for the district's eighth graders?
For ourselves, we aren't familiar with Maus, or with the degree of "brutality" involved in its depictions. We're not sure that we'd be inclined to use that term in describing Maus at all.
But in her list of recommended readings, Cray instantly links to an earlier essay in The Atlantic. Dual headlines included, that essay starts as shown:
Book Bans Are Targeting the History of Oppression
The possibility of a more just future is at stake when young people are denied access to knowledge of the past.
The instinct to ban books in schools seems to come from a desire to protect children from things that the adults doing the banning find upsetting or offensive. These adults often seem unable to see beyond harsh language or gruesome imagery to the books’ educational and artistic value, or to recognize that language and imagery may be integral to showing the harsh, gruesome truths of the books’ subjects. That appears to be what’s happening with Art Spiegelman’s Maus—a Pulitzer Prize–winning graphic-novel series about the author’s father’s experience of the Holocaust that a Tennessee school board recently pulled from an eighth-grade language-arts curriculum, citing the books’ inappropriate language and nudity.
The Maus case is one of the latest in a series of school book bans targeting books that teach the history of oppression...
These Adults Today! The instinct to "ban" books like Maus seems to come from their desire to protect children from things that the adults find upsetting or offensive.
Also, when Maus was "banned," it was one of the latest in a series of such bans "targeting books that teach the history of oppression!"
Surprising! Even as that local school district maintained a two-month unit on the Holocaust, followed by a two-month unit of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, it was conspiring to keep its students in the dark about such acts of oppression!
Surprising! But our tribe seems to need such dramatic claims the way plants need the light.
The last assertion in that passage can perhaps be defended as technically accurate. But should readers have been told that the local school district in question teaches a two-month unit about the Holocaust in eighth grade? That the board voted to replace Maus with a different book which teaches the history of the Holocaust?
Cray's original headline was asking an excellent question. On the other hand, it seemed to us that her short essay came to us, live and direct, from the realm of blue tribe script.
Within that realm, we're always right. Also, the Others are always quite plainly wrong, in familiar stereotypical ways wherever possible.
Foolishly, we had imagined that we might spend this week discussing some of the questions which might arise in the course of devising a high school American history course. Such questions come especially thick and fast when we're devising the way to teach our brutal history concerning matters of race.
Our thoughts especially turned that way as we read Hannah Dreier's front-page report in Sunday's New York Times. More than a hundred years later, Dreier was rewriting The Jungle, a famous novel which described one part of our nation's exploitive past.
We were foolish to think that we could conduct some such discussion. Very frankly, and as we've noted, it's all anthropology now!
Our discourse has descended into dueling talking points from dueling political tribes. The conduct is quite often crazy among the red tribe, but it's also quite bad Over Here.
Last night, we watched Tucker Carlson stage his latest astonishing rant. No sane society can conduct leisurely discussions of the philosophy of history while such disordered behavior is taking place, night after night after night after night, with little effort being made to comment or intervene.
We also watched to see if our own blue tribe would discuss the brutal conduct which Dreier described in the Times. Needless to say, we saw no such discussion take place.
Simply put, we don't care about matters like that. On balance, our tribunes care about this comfort food:
Trump Trump Trump Trump Trump Trump Jail!
and about little else.
(Stephanie had time for the Murdaugh trial. She didn't have time for 12-year-olds working the midnight shift.)
Long ago, we told you that it's too late to expect some sort of solution to our current societal problem. Too much money is being made, by too many people, as the soundbite wars roll on.
It's all over now but the anthropology! It's all over but the explanation of how it all ended this way, with one tribe substantially sunk in The Crazy and our own tribe clinging to memorized denigrations of what the Others just have to be like.
We still plan to take a look at Maureen Dowd's column from last Sunday. In our view, it involves a familiar picture to which our tribe religiously clings, much as a group of drowning people might cling to a flimsy raft.
Cray was asking a very good question in the headline we've posted. It sent us drifting back in time to the days, long ago, when we were given The Jungle as a high school reading assignment.
Cray was asking a very good question! But one of our tribes has gone insane, and our own deeply parochial, landlocked tribe is clinging to treasured script from the deep dark historical past.
Tomorrow: What Tucker Carlson said this time? And how about Morning Joe?