The Problem Isn’t Banned Books, Naughty Words or Wokeness. America is Dumbing Down.
COMMENTARY

January 31, 2022 by Mary Sanchez
The Problem Isn’t Banned Books, Naughty Words or Wokeness. America is Dumbing Down.
This illustration photo taken in Los Angeles on Jan. 27, 2022, shows a person holding the graphic novel "Maus" by Art Spiegelman. A school board in Tennessee has added to a surge in book bans by conservatives with an order to remove the award-winning 1986 graphic novel on the Holocaust, "Maus," from local student libraries. (Maro Siranosian/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

The crux of America’s looming educational crisis is obvious and it has nothing to do with the books in the curriculum.

The lesson is deep into the much-maligned transcript of a Tennessee school board’s discussion before unanimously voting to nix the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus” from the 8th grade curriculum.

The vote got the McMinn County board members widely roasted, belittled as another example of overreach by elected officials. For many, it fit neatly into disputes in districts nationwide; book censorship, the meddling on mask mandates and insistence the children may be made to feel badly about themselves if they learn about racism’s historic roots.

But “Maus” is a bit different. And potentially, more alarming, if America continues down the path we’re perilously striding.

Understand first that “Maus; A Survivor’s Tale” is ingenious. The work by Art Spiegelman depicts how he coaxed his father to tell him of surviving the Holocaust. It’s deeply nuanced with threads of loss and grief, historically informative and accessible; the very sort of text that educators seek for youth.

The Nazis are drawn as cats. Jewish people are mice. The animal depictions somehow make them that much more real, people existing amid one of the most deplorable acts of genocide in history.

And except for a few bad words, seriously not that bad, and one female mouse drawn nude, well, even the board members found positive things to say about the two volumes. They just didn’t like the naughty words or the unclothed mouse.

In the transcript of the early January meeting, an unnamed high school teacher acknowledges that the school board wasn’t opposed to teaching the Holocaust.

Then, she gets to the point, saying of students: “unless they have adequate background of the concept that’s being discussed, they’re going to miss it, some of my freshman this year still had a hard time connecting the dots and being ethical, moral and all that other stuff. It’s because they have not been in the classroom for nearly two years because of Covid, they are missing a lot of stuff that they might have, had they been there. It’s going to be a lot harder to get them to understand.”

Succinctly, the teacher stated what’s true of schools nationwide.

And yet, here we have board members atwitter about a handful of words. The discussion does not show the group to be marching for the door, “Maus” in hand to burn.

They’re oddly hyper-focused on the words, as if they can’t shake the image of the naked mouse long enough to grasp broader views. So much so that much attention is given to nonsensical gerrymandered non-options. The board delved into copyright infringement if words are blocked, for example.

As a longtime reporter, I can attest to the fact that board conversations, be they for schools or any public entity, can end up down rabbit holes. But this example shows more a lack of higher level thinking, analysis and real problem-solving. Similar simple-mindedness is increasingly normalized.

Study the history of book banning and agreed upon themes, pronouncements by scholars, begin to strike.

Banning is not new. It can be traced throughout time. Ancient rulers did it. China during the Cultural Revolution swept texts and yes, the Nazi’s burned of Jewish books and sacred scrolls.

Many of those acts were clearly about control and power, eliminating some information to make way for a propagandized substitute to flourish.

Those censors sought to contain ideas and thoughts they felt threatened an opposite worldview or form of governance. Those efforts were based in fear but also in intellectualism. The censors knew exactly what ideas and concepts they didn’t want nurtured.

What’s often happening today is far more uninformed.

Peel back the layers and it’s often revealed that books have been misinterpreted or judged by cryptic snippets. The fervent pushback is based on a lack of knowledge.

Take recent history, efforts to keep children from understanding the complexities of gender and sexual orientation. That’s control, fear and usually, a deep lack of factual information.

This is the crucial distinction to ponder with “Maus.” And we need to consider this while enough of us still have the cognitive skills to muster the exercise.

Despite drilling into the text to find problematic words, the board doesn’t seem able to draw out to broader issues.

They just can’t get there. And so, a vote is taken. All say get rid of it. And it’s on to the next item on the agenda item.

They don’t come across as mean-spirited, or not wanting to think critically. And yet, they don’t.

The classroom that the unnamed teacher described can be found across America, in private and public schools, suburban, urban and rural. Children are struggling. Baby boomer retirements are sweeping the teacher ranks. The depletion is exacerbated by the pandemic and pointless attacks by boards, parents and legislatures.

So many of these actions, the slights to the studied reasoning of educators, fall to the simplistic approaches like what ditched “Maus.”


(Readers can reach Mary Sanchez at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @msanchezcolumn.)

©2022 Mary Sanchez. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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