This has been a tough year for facts. Earlier this year, Oklahoma made the news for banning AP history — among other things, state officials claimed it showed the ‘worst parts of America.’ Several months later, Florida was in the news for a bizarre policy requiring state officials to avoid the words ‘climate change,’ and one can only imagine how that might filter down to Florida schools. Other states, other districts, may even now be enacting similar changes that aren’t capturing media attention because they’re low level or not as obvious.
While comments that this country seems to be careening towards a dystopia seem almost jaded and overdone by now, the United States really is headed in a strongly dystopian direction — it’s no wonder teens are drawn to dystopian reading, since it reflects their reality. We have endless war and a government attempt to whip up a common but distant enemy so the nation can be united in support of a single and clear cause, thereby keeping the population compliant. We have growing social controls used to turn citizens into subjects, of which education is just one.
These are paired with economic chaos at home, and the loss of the tools people could use to identify that chaos and pull themselves out of the boom and bust cycle — college is becoming unaffordable, for example, and likewise, loans at good interest rates are becoming thin on the ground even as wages fail to keep pace with inflation and workplaces increasingly attempt to break up unions or prevent their formation in the first place. This is a country with a government at war with its citizens, joined by major corporations and other parties with a clear and vested interest in its own welfare, not that of individuals.
The United States is also a nation where conservatives very specifically and obviously want to be the ones in control — their work to dominate society is present in every nook and cranny of how we relate, govern, and function. Conservative influences are skewing social policy, as seen strikingly in the battle over reproductive rights being waged across the US, but also in settings like social benefits programmes, which are dwindling in response to funding cuts and policy mandates that cut off benefits much earlier and tighten eligibility guidelines. Likewise, conservatives are cutting funding even for socially beneficial activities like routine maintenance of civic and government property — this is a country where the roads are falling apart, where power generating systems and the grid are in an extremely perilous state, where the framework of the basic systems that run the country could topple in response to even low grade earthquakes, hurricanes, and other disasters.
In this setting, it is perhaps not surprising to see focused and furious efforts to remove content from education in the US. One of the first routes to controlling a people is controlling what they learn — ensuring that it’s extremely difficult for the residents of a nation to access information, but also depriving them of chances to acquire critical thinking skills, the ability to do research on their own, and the tools necessary to find information when it’s not evident. If students don’t know what they’re missing, aren’t aware they’re missing it, and don’t know how to find it, they’re missing out.
That leads to intergenerational problems as the public slowly but steadily acquires narrowminded attitudes, views of society, and approaches to social problems. If textbooks are redacting the civil rights movement or glossing over slavery, failing to discuss the fight for the right to vote, not discussing the origins of organisations like the EPA, taking giant leaps and sidesteps through history, that’s a problem. If teachers are deliberately instructed not to provide this information, this, too, is a problem.
I was struck in college once when I casually mentioned the internment camps the US had run during the Second World War and everyone at the table seemed genuinely surprised and horrified. It was my first exposure to the incredibly broad variance of education in the United States — and it was also a grim warning of what may come to pass in this country. We can try to erase our past, we can make it such that these things are only remembered in a dwindling number of minds by a shrinking number of people, but it doesn’t go away, and neither do the structural problems it caused. Internment had serious consequences for Japanese-Americans. It permanently scarred generations, it took land and farms they’d been working on for years, it fundamentally shaped their relationship to the nation that some had been living in for generations.
To erase that history so neatly might seem simple — excise a few pages in a textbook, talk around it in a class about the Second World War, whizz through it altogether in a US history course, but it still exists, and it still endures. It is only in a dystopia that the government and leading officials can convince themselves that it’s this easy to run from the past, and it is the public living now that hurts the most when political moves like these are made. It deprives people of autonomy and freedom, it makes the United States look hopelessly backward and behind the times on its own history and culture, and it eradicates the opportunity for serious, respectful conversations about these issues.
A country retreating into itself with a revisionist view of its own history is not one with a promising history on the global stage.
Image: Girl sitting at desk flipping through textbook, Library and Archives Canada, Flickr