What a week. The first week of October 2023 offered up teachable moments through history playing out in real time as well as observances of long-running tensions in American life and education.
In Washington, the U.S. House of Representatives ousted its Republican speaker, leaving the nation for a while without the officeholder second in line to the presidency. In New York, the most recent Republican president appeared before a judge who ruled that Donald Trump as a businessman had committed persistent fraud and ordered him to cease attacking the court staff on social media.
Across the nation, meanwhile, a coalition of organizations including the American Library Association and the National Council of Teachers of English held the annual Banned Books Week. PEN America, an association of novelists, screenwriters, poets, journalists, and editors, reports that public school book bans increased by 33% in the 2022-23 school year.
At mid-week at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, students and faculty in law, journalism, library, and public health took part in the 14th First Amendment Day on campus. The day opened with readings of selections from banned books and consisted of debates and panel discussions on ethics, student media, health warning labels, and media in the 2024 presidential election.
In North Carolina, as elsewhere, public schools, colleges, and universities continue to serve as democratic infrastructure. Both formal courses in literature, civics, and history and an amalgam of seminars, lectures, and clubs prepare young people with knowledge and critical thinking skills for citizenship.
At a time when democracy itself is at the center of public debate, there is a need for more time for and more depth in civics and history. And yet in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the insurrection at the nation’s Capitol, the state and nation saw a renewal of cultural clashes on educational turf.
The North Carolina General Assembly recently enacted a new law defined as a bill of rights for parents. As a general rule, public schools welcome regular and mutually respectful engagement between parents and educators. Still, the legislation adopted by the Republican majority spelled out, among multiple provisions, “the right to inspect and purchase public school unit textbooks and other supplementary instructional materials (and) … the right to review all available records of materials their child has borrowed from a school library.”
In a report issued shortly before Banned Books Week, PEN America lists North Carolina among 19 states that have adopted “educational intimidation” laws or policies. Such regulations, says PEN America, place pressures on public schools “by creating conditions under which educators will self-censor to avoid potential controversy, conflict, or punishment.”
“The result is a spate of bills that claim to work in service of parents or public transparency,” says PEN America, “but actually serve to constrict curricular materials and chill instruction.
E Pluribus Unum, a nonprofit organization with a mission to address racial and class divisions in the Southern states, has published a roundup of 2023 legislative activity in 13 states. It cites “two common education trends” — legislation on parental rights and school-based mental health services.
“While there is no denying that parents have the right to be involved in decisions about their child’s education, many of these bills have broader equity implications as they prioritize the ideological preferences of some parents while eroding the rights of others,” says the EPU report. “… This trend also shifts focus away from other pressing parental rights like the right to access fully resourced schools, high-quality curriculum aligned to state standards, qualified teachers, safe learning environments, and social emotional learning supports.”
For citizens to assess history-in-the-making requires the context provided by civics and history delivered by educators empowered and protected to perform as professionals. The weighty week of Oct. 1-7 defines critical, if fraught, tasks ahead for public education in responding to and bolstering the tumultuous democracy it serves.