The right’s war on public education

Arizona’s banning of several books is an attack on education.

by Trent M. Kays

Some conservatives seem to despise education. It itches at them like a persistent rash. Education is an inherently political institution. A group of people choose what to include and what not to include in the curriculum, and their choices are most likely colored by their cultural and political understandings. It’s an unavoidable issue and one that is a constant irritation to some.

Some pundits suggest that conservatives, in general, are attempting to push our society back to a time where women were treated as second-class citizens and child-labor laws didn’t protect children. However, I think that doesn’t go far enough, because many conservatives have started attacking the very foundation of an enlightened society: education. America is far from an enlightened society, but the only way to achieve such a lofty goal is through education. So conservatives’ perverse attacks on education in order to overtly assert their political philosophy on others are disconcerting though not surprising.

Nowhere are these attacks more apparent than in Arizona. The state made international news by outlawing any program that is perceived as “anti-white” and the Tucson Unified School District made illegal teaching certain books or even having certain books available. This is what conservatives’ war on education looks like. It’s something akin to book burning, except without the actual act of burning, and teachers are being forced to abide by this form of book burning because of conservatives in Arizona.

This is a frustrating paradigm, and one that should have never existed. Essentially, Arizona’s law suggests that the only correct culture is white American culture. No other cultures exist, and to speak of difference is frowned on. I’ve never seen such a ludicrous example of ignorance ruling education. The institution charged with eradicating ignorance is dominated by it. I hope this isn’t the future of education in America.

This example is a clear instance of what happens when conservatives control education, and it should serve as a warning. They seem to be incapable of tolerating dissension. Any idea or thought that doesn’t align with their own is immediately wrong and not to be discussed.

One of the books outlawed in the Tucson Unified School District is “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire. Freire was a Brazilian educator who was confronted with suffering. He saw the people of his country being oppressed, and education was culpable in this oppression. Freire sought to liberate those who were oppressed and ensure that society continued and flourished through education.

Indeed, Freire argued that when one is oppressed, violence is being done to them: “Violence is initiated by those who oppress, who exploit, who fail to recognize others as persons — not by those who are oppressed, exploited, and unrecognized.” This is what is happening in Arizona, and the banning of Freire’s book is a testament to its influence. Those with privilege, those with power, are oppressing students and teachers in Arizona’s public education system.

I suppose Freire’s work can be considered radical, but it is only radical in that it advocates for change and betterment of society through education. I guess Arizona’s conservatives don’t care about change, culture or groups of people who happen to be similar. It’s worrisome that something like this could even happen in America in the 21st century — in the supposedly greatest country on earth, there is a state that is banning books, authors and culture-specific curriculum from public education.

This act of conservatism at work reminds me of an entity cutting off its nose to spite its face. It makes no sense, yet it continues. Oppression continues, propagated by conservatives who are seemingly bent on returning America to a state of blissful obliviousness. There may be no greater argument for more liberal-leaning teachers, professors and administrators in education than the Arizona example.

While I would prefer overt political leanings in education not to exist, it’s become quite apparent that some conservatives cannot be trusted with public education and the future of our society. We can’t allow a group of privileged and shortsighted oppressors to continue to influence the education of those who will confront an ambiguous future. How do we explain to our children and future children that politicians decided what we can and cannot read? How do we explain to them that oppression exists without giving them the tools to recognize it?

I know that history will judge what conservatives have done in Arizona and will find them wanting. But that doesn’t mean something can’t be done now. I would hope that teachers and instructors in Arizona’s public education system form reading groups or after school groups to read any and all of the banned books. I can’t think of a more fitting form of protest than to enjoy the privileges of after school activities that are explicitly counter to the ignorance propagated by some conservatives.

I think we must do Freire proud and challenge oppression where it exists. We must tear down hatred and ignorance, we must work for equality and equity, and we must trust in the process of education. Finally, we must not allow the oppressors to win.


Trent Kays welcomes comments at [email protected]