Last Time, the Religious Right Told Us Not Only What We Can Teach but How by Alfie Kohn

Last Time, the Religious Right Told Us Not Only What We Can Teach b...

April 29, 2022

Last Time, the Religious Right Told Us Not Only What We Can Teach but How to Teach It


Christian conservatives are banning books and censoring school curricula -- and not for the first time. Materials dealing with sexuality and sexual orientation have always been popular targets for them; indeed, researchers have found that literally nothing outrages highly religious people more than "violations of conventional sexual morality."1 Their earlier attempts to restrict what can be taught in science class (such as how life evolves), meanwhile, have given way to prohibitions on what can be taught in history class (such as the prominent role that racism has played in American history).

But the authoritarian impulse has not stopped there. For one thing, many of the same activists have simultaneously mounted a campaign of intimidation against school authorities for implementing public health measures to prevent the spread of Covid. For another, they have begun "targeting school initiatives centered on students' mental health and emotional well-being" -- until recently viewed as an uncontroversial and even "unifying idea" -- claiming that social-emotional learning (SEL) programs are efforts to "indoctrinate" children.

Even more ominous is how the right-wing furor over these issues has been leveraged to attack democratic public schooling itself. The primary provocateur stirring up hysteria about teaching unsettling historical truths (and about LGBTQ educators) has acknowledged that these organizing efforts are ultimately intended to destroy public education -- a "naked attack on the very existence of public schools" that has been actively abetted by leading Republican politicians. (Indeed, much of the funding for opposition to "critical race theory" comes from long-time proponents of privatization.)2 Alongside new laws to ban certain works of literature or readings about race, 22 states passed laws to expand "school choice" measures just in 2021. And all of this -- the censorship, the attacks on public schooling, the anti-vaccine and anti-masking protests -- is defended in the name of "parental rights."

Mindful of Mark Twain's observation that history often rhymes, I decided to revisit the last major surge in the religious right's efforts to muzzle educators. It turns out that quite a bit of material from the 1980s and '90s was available on my bookshelves and in my file cabinets. (Apparently if you live long enough and resist the urge to throw stuff out, you are no longer a mere hoarder but an "archivist.")

One source I found was an account of how conservative Christians fiercely opposed multicultural language-arts anthologies in the 1970s. James Moffett spent time talking with the leaders of that movement and came to realize that

the rich range of ideas and viewpoints [in those books] were exactly what fundamentalists don't want. They believe that most of the topics English teachers think make good discussion are about matters they consider already settled....The censors really wanted to fill up schooling with rote learning of facts and avoid student thinking. They wanted, for example, more grammar, which has no subject matter, and less literature.3

As I sifted through other books and clippings, I discovered something interesting. The last time around, groups like the Moral Majority and Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum were keen to control not only what students could be taught but how they could be taught. The most salient example of politicizing pedagogy concerned how children learn to read. A 1985 essay in Education Week explained that, to conservative activists, "only systematic phonics, employing sound-symbol decoding, is acceptable...Reading comprehension is to be taught...[using] didactic reading materials and literal-level questions."4


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