Authoritarianism, Cancellation of Culture, and the Purpose of Schooling


Books refresh our minds to a world of learning we could never imagine. They expose us to knowledge to develop understanding and empathy for people, communities, and concepts outside our lives.

Books challenge us to think outside the box of the prevailing status quo. In this way, they continually expand our critical thinking skills, especially when combined in dialogue with others, to analyze our small piece of the world and envision how we can improve it individually and in coalition.

Reading books and studying real history age-appropriately challenges the sterile whitewashed curriculum on which many students have been weaned. The curricular Pablum many are fed is composed of non-nutritive hollow calories deadening creativity and critical thought, and potentially worst of all, a love of learning.

This, in turn, reduces students’ chances of engaging in effective dialogue and in transformational actions (praxis: reflection and action) to bring about systemic progressive change in themselves and in their social environments.

And this point of challenging us to enhance and expand critical thinking and critical consciousness generally stands as a chief reason why those in positions of power who have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are stand in the way of pedagogic strategies that uphold the true intent, the true meaning of “education.”

Rep. Matt Krause, a Republican Texas state legislator, has issued a statement asking schools throughout the state to report to him whether they currently hold approximately 850 books on a list he has compiled.

Krause explained that he is directing his aim at curricular materials and school library collections that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.”

Some of the books on his list include written and graphic novels, while the majority represent non-fiction historical materials in the categories of race, nationality, sexuality, and gender identity.

A brief sampling include: 2020 Black Lives Marches by Joyce Markovics; Life, Death, and Silence: Women and Family in the Holocaust, by Esther Hartzog; The Indian Removal Act and The Trail of Tears, by Susan Hamen; What Is White Privilege, by Leigh Ann Erickson.

Also included are: Beyond the Gender Binary, by Alok Vaid-Menon; Rainbow Revolutionaries: 50 LGBTQ+ People Who Made History, by Sarah Prager; and The Abortion Rights Movement, by Meghan Powers.

Some districts are attempting to ban materials from the 1619 Project (named after the year enslaved Africans were first ruthlessly brought and dumped onto what would be called the United States against their will).

Parents’ Rights or Adultism and Adherence to the Status Quo

Possibly because the notion of Critical Race Theory is so vague to most conservative voters, when Republican candidate for Virginia’s next Governor, Glenn Youngkin, ran in 2021, he labeled himself as the “parents’ rights candidate” by attempting further to instill fear on the part of the electorate.

He raised his racist bullhorn by declaring not only his intent to ban Critical Race Theory the day he is elected, but also to outlaw the reading of the critically acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winning novel by author Toni Morrison, Beloved, which was turned into a major feature film.

Beloved, a truthful and painful story of the lives and loves of two enslaved black people in the U.S. South, has become an integral part of the cannon of American literature.

After winning the Virginia gubernatorial election and with the support of the Virginia state legislature, new bills to limit the teaching of our country’s true past have circulated throughout the Virginia statehouse.

House bill No. 781, proposed by Republican Delegate Wren Williams, prohibits “divisive concepts” from instruction in Virginia public elementary and secondary schools. While Williams has made clear his opposition to the teaching of Critical Race Theory, the wording “divisive concepts” in its vagueness closes the door on the teaching of anything and everything conservatives deem necessary to ban.

In January 2022, the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee voted to confiscate Maus, a Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel by Art Spiegelman, from schools in the district. The book discusses the experiences of the author’s father as a Jew under the Nazi regime and as a Holocaust survivor.

The Tennessee school board took this action due to supposed “inappropriate language” and an illustration of a nude woman.

Video games are much more highly sexualized, violent, and replete with locker room language, though these local state legislatures for the most part do not go after them because they serve as the anti-critical opiate of the young in distracting their libidinous and revolutionary potentials by attacking a fabricated screen enemy rather a social system that continually attacks their subjectivity.

Book censorship and banning limits intellectual curiosity. Schools are becoming akin to so-called “reeducation detention camps” found in autocratic totalitarian regimes.

A Claims Conference Poll of people under the age of 40, between February to March in 2020 found that 48% the young people (Millennials and Gen Z) polled could not name a single Nazi concentration camp; 63% did not know that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust; and 11% believed that the Holocaust was caused by Jews

We see the political right now going bonkers over cultural attempts to break down social constructions of gender by desexualizing M&Ms Green (changing its stiletto heal boots to sneakers, and Minnie Mouse (dressing her in a pant suit rather than a frilly dress), and by providing Potato Head people all-gender or non-binary identities.

A tidal surge of conservative-sponsored bills to ban other works have spread throughout the nation pulling such notable works from schools as Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

To safely apply the harness and saddle and mount safely, the rider must first “break” the horse of its instinctive impulses to maintain its freedom and liberty in walking and trotting unencumbered by forces outside itself. The horse resists human attempts to restrict its freedom, to “domesticate” it, by denying its rights of subjectivity and self-determination and converting it to an object of control and domination.

In like fashion, adults as social agents as the riders attempt to “break” young people of their instinctive impulses to maintain their freedom of expression and inhibit their emerging identities if these identities do not conform to parents’ expectations.

Within an adultist society, adults construct the rules, with little or no input from youth, which they force young people to follow in a process of domestication. Even the terminology our society employs to refer to youth betrays a hierarchical power dynamic.

For example, we refer to young people as “kids,” a term originally applying to young goats. By referring to youth as farm animals provides adults cover in controlling and maintaining unlimited power over humans. (We must treat and respect animals better than we do as well.)

Of course, parents and other adults have the inherent responsibility of protecting young people from harming themselves and being harmed by others, and of teaching them how to live and function in society within our ever-changing global community.

In Freudian terms, we must develop a balance between the individual’s unrestrained instinctual drives and restraints (repression) on these drives in the service of maintaining society (civilization), and to sustain the life of the individual.

We as a society, nonetheless, must set a line demarcating protection from control, teaching from propagandizing, minimal and fundamental repression from what Herbert Marcuse terms “surplus repression” (that which goes over and beyond what is necessary for the protection of the individual and the smooth functioning of society, and enters the realm of domination, control, and oppression).

Teachers have come under increased scrutiny by parents and community members. In Virginia, for example, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin issued his first executive order banning what his regime terms “inherently divisive concepts, like Critical Race Theory and its progeny” from Virginia public schools.

He has set up email so-called “Tip Lines” for people to report (denounce) teachers in Virginia.

Interviewed on a conservative radio talk show, Youngkin announced that parents will be able to report teachers or schools for “any instances where they feel that their fundamental rights are being violated, where their children are not being respected, where there are inherently divisive practices in their schools.”

To paraphrase Pastor Martin Niemöller:

First they came for Leaves of Grass, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not gay.

Then they came for Stone Butch Blues, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a transgender person.

Then they came for Critical Race Theory and Beloved, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not Black.

Then they came for Maus, and I did not speak out—

Because I am a Christian and not a Jew.

Then they came for books representing my experiences and identities—and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Education in the Neo-Liberal Age

Walking home with my laundry cart filled with groceries in advance of a possibly historic winter storm forecasted to blast the Northeast, I watched as my town’s sanitation workers dumped glass, plastic, and paper recyclables into their massive blue municipal truck.

I thought about how their actions metaphorically represented the current pedagogical practices in our schools whereby educators are mandated to fill the spaces of students’ brains with manufactured knowledge conceived by corporations to enhance their workforces and, therefore, their bottom lines.

The current system in schooling is in opposition to the very meaning of “education,” which is derived from two Latin roots: “e,” meaning “out of,” and “ducere,” meaning “to lead” or “to draw.”

True education involves the process of drawing knowledge out of the student or leading the student toward knowledge, rather than putting or depositing information into what some educator’s perceive as the student’s waiting and docile mind”—what the Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Reglus Neves Freire termed “the banking system of education.”

Freire talks about a “culture of silence” in the schools and society at large. This is the result of systems of economic, social, and political domination, in addition to paternalism, to which marginalized peoples are the victims.

“The rightest sectarian (whom I have previously termed a ‘born sectarian’) wants to slow down the historical process, to ‘domesticate’ time and thus to domesticate men and women” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1993, p. 20).

Not surprisingly within this current authoritarian climate, legislators in Arizona a few years ago banned Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a pioneering and foundational work in the field of social justice education through liberatory consciousness.

Once the society for the benefit of the corporate sector fills students’ minds and depletes their labor, these societies put them out for collection to be recycled in another form and used up and recycled again in a self-perpetuating loop.

I would ask, however, what effects have our neo-liberal age of standardization, corporatization, privatization, and deregulation of the educational, business, banking, and corporate sectors have on learning?

Standardized curriculum and testing were initially intended to gauge students’ progress, but have, unfortunately, metastasized into benchmarks for student advancement through the educational levels, for teacher accountability, as well as criteria for school funding from the government.

The Neoliberal age—education for the corporate sector—acts like a postal sorting machine to plug workers into businesses on a conveyor belt of conformity.

According to the so-called “Allocation Theory” of education, schooling has turned into a status competition, which confers success on some and failure on others. Our schools have morphed into assembly-line factories transforming students into workers, and then sorting these workers into jobs necessary for industry and business.

In so doing, educational institutions legitimize and maintain the social order (read as the status quo). Schools drive individuals to fill certain roles or positions in society, which are not always based on the individuals’ talents or interests.

Education, as I have gained from Freire, is a path toward permanent liberation in which people became aware (conscientização) of their multiple positionalities (identity intersectionality), and learning to perceive the social, political, and economic contradictions, and through praxis (reflection and action), transform the world.

Educators, to be truly effective, must spend many years in self-reflection and must have a clear understanding of their motivations, strengths, limitations, “triggers,” and fears. They must thoroughly come to terms with their positions in the world in terms of their social identities: both the ways in which they are privileged as well as how they have been the targets of systemic inequities.

They are not afraid of showing vulnerability and admitting when they are wrong or when they “don’t know.” They have a firm grasp of the content area, and they work well with and are accessible to students and their peers.

Realizing that students come from disparate backgrounds in terms of social identities, and that students learn in a variety of ways, educators must be “culturally competent,” and must be informed on the historical and cultural backgrounds of diverse student populations, pedagogical frameworks, theories of cognitive development, personality types, preferred sensory modes of learning, and others.

In the ideal classroom, the overriding climate is one of safety. This is not, however, the same as “comfort,” for very often, comfortable situations might feel fine, but are not necessarily of pedagogic value.

“Safety” in this case refers to an environment where educators facilitate a learning process: one in which one can share openly without fear of retribution or blame; where one can travel to the outer limits of one’s “learning edges” in the knowledge that one will be supported and not left dangling.

Very often, a single semester course may not provide the educator sufficient time to fully appreciate the true growth or impact of their endeavors, but it can at least provide the opportunity for the planting of a seed, for overall, the role of the educator is to excite, to motivate, to develop or enhance in the student a continuing and life-long quest for learning.

In addition to teaching the 3 Rs (Reading, wRiting, and ‘Rithmetic), we need to teach students how to investigate issues around Self Awareness: how to “Read” the Self and “Solve” social, emotional, and ethical problems.

A goal of education for Freire is also to give students the tools to “read the world.”

I see how “education” and “schooling,” however, as currently constituted, contradicts its own methodologies by primarily focusing on grades in the service of eventual jobs and economic security for the educational consumer, and in so doing, we have diminished in many of our students the joy of learning for learning sake and learning for the sake of understanding themselves and the world around them.

Professor and Executive Director of the Human Rights Center at the University of Dayton, Shelley Inglis, studies authoritarian leaders around the world and came with a list of ten common markers characteristic to many.

One marker states that authoritarians appeal to populism and nationalism. While “populism” encompasses a range of political stances emphasizing the idea of siding with “the people” against the so-called “elite” and can exist on the political left, the right, or the center, right wing populism co-opts the term and juxtaposes nationalist and nativist aims. This form of populism we have clearly witnessed during this era of Trumpism.

Another of Inglis’ markers of authoritarianism is the control of information at home (propaganda and stifling of truth in schools, the media, and the larger society) and misinformation abroad.

To counter the increasing authoritarianism in the United States, rather than banning books and other materials, we must encourage critical consciousness and embrace the true definition of learning: to attain the individual’s highest levels of potential and to become life-long learners to transform societies and world for the better.

And we are witnessing students around the country, individually and in coalitions, resisting and protesting the restraints imposed on their learning by legislative bodies and parents’ groups. The controversy itself has become a learning experience, a “teachable moment,” that has brought students ever closer to conscientização.

Censorship stands diametrically opposed to what our schools should practice. Said in many ways in many traditions, my Jewish tradition refers to a concept as Tikkun Olam: to repair and to make our world a more perfect and better place.

Let us join in coalition to make it so.


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