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[COMMENTARY] DeSantis Wants to Control Where Children Get Their Information

[COMMENTARY] DeSantis Wants to Control Where Children Get Their Information

Governor Ron DeSantis’s proposed new legislation, Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act, or Stop W.O.K.E. Act, threatens to defund any school in Florida that teaches Critical Race Theory.

There are at least two problems with the act. First, CRT isn’t even being taught in K-12 schools. Second, even as it purports to protect students’ freedom, the act actually aims to limit what children learn, especially anything related to racism or inequality.

DeSantis’s latest move is familiar. Most recently, he seems to have taken a page from Glenn Youngkin’s gubernatorial campaign in Virginia, which featured an ad against Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. Both political ploys stoke fears that children would learn the truth about our nation’s history. Yet, as a professor of multi-cultural literature, I can attest that grappling with (rather than ignoring) the complexity of history is worthwhile and that students can and should handle it.

Certainly, aspects of our nation’s history — particularly history related to racism and inequality — are vivid and violent. To take the Youngkin campaign’s example, Beloved depicts rape and the treating of human beings as property. Although it is based on a true story, the novel also includes a ghost in a haunted house; as a result, some critics place Beloved alongside other horror novels, an apt categorization given that fear formed the root of the power brought to bear on enslaved people.

But, just like in our nation’s history, there is love too — family drama, romance, and coming-of-age, bolstered by a deep and unceasing bond between mothers and children, old friends, community members. As such, Morrison’s novel is infused with hope. Ironically, it succeeds in exactly what Florida’s Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran says should be the goal of the state’s public schools: empowering students with great, historically accurate knowledge and giving those students and their families the freedom to draw their own conclusions.”

Calls to ban Beloved or threats to pull funding from schools that deal honestly with racism and inequality ultimately tap into a tactic that is much older than the last few election cycles. Simply put, Americans have long sought to deal with discomfort by withholding information.

In the 1600s, Pilgrims in New England succeeded in banning Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan because the author not only criticized their religion but threatened their commercial interests. Twentieth-century calls to ban Harry Potter or A Wrinkle in Time because they include magic similarly show a tendency to make a certain version of Christianity unassailable. And throughout history, calls for restrictions reveal anxiety about sexuality.

In other words, panic about what young people learn is not new. What strikes me as remarkable about the current impulse to pretend racism and inequality never existed – or, worse, have been “solved” – is that it is so explicit. In recent years, official calls for censorship or removal from school libraries have almost always related to content by or about people of color, LGBT+, and disabled people. For example, as the ALA noted, “out of the 2015 Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books, nine of them contained diverse content.”

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Fortunately, calls to limit information often only make it more popular. Beloved has been steadily rising in sales because of newfound negative attention. Similarly, Angie Thomas recalls how, a week after a Texas school district banned her novel, The Hate U Give, “tens of thousands of copies” of the book sold in that same district.

Hopefully, Floridians will reject DeSantis’s efforts to control the narrative and show support for educators and librarians who tell the truth about our nation’s history —  or at least impart the critical thinking tools for young people to discover that history on their own.

As it happens, I first fell in love with troubling stories in my high school English classroom in Florida — thankfully before DeSantis moved into the governor’s mansion and began trying to curtail students’ educations. I distinctly remember learning about our nation’s historical horrors, but also about the power of stories. The stubborn endurance of literature and history shows that, even if some audiences prefer to look away, the people they represent remain.

About the Author:
Leah Milne is a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project and the University of Indianapolis. She teaches American and postcolonial literature and is the author of Novel Subjects: Authorship as Radical Self-Care in Multiethnic American Narratives (University of Iowa Press, 2021).

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